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Critical Essay Macbeth

Macbeth not only is the shortest of William Shakespeare’s great tragedies but also is anomalous in some structural respects. Like Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622) and only a very few other Shakespearean plays, Macbeth is without the complications of a subplot. Consequently, the action moves forward in a swift and inexorable rush. More significantly, the climax—the murder of Duncan—takes place very early in the play. As a result, attention is focused on the various consequences of the crime rather than on the ambiguities or moral dilemmas that had preceded and occasioned it.

In this, the play differs from Othello, where the hero commits murder only after long plotting, and from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), where the hero spends most of the play in moral indecision. Macbeth is more like King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), where destructive action flows from the central premise of the division of the kingdom. However, Macbeth differs from that play, too, in that it does not raise the monumental, cosmic questions of good and evil in nature. Instead, it explores the moral and psychological effects of evil in the life of one man. For all the power and prominence of Lady Macbeth, the drama remains essentially the story of the lord who commits regicide and thereby enmeshes himself in a complex web of consequences.

When Macbeth first enters, he is far from the villain whose experiences the play subsequently describes. He has just returned from a glorious military success in defense of the Crown. He is rewarded by the grateful Duncan, with preferment as thane of Cawdor. This honor, which initially qualifies him for the role of hero, ironically intensifies the horror of the murder Macbeth soon commits.

Macbeth’s fall is rapid, and his crime is more clearly a sin than is usually the case in tragedy. It is not mitigated by mixed motives or insufficient knowledge. Moreover, the sin is regicide, an action viewed during the Renaissance as exceptionally foul, since it struck at God’s representative on Earth. The sin is so boldly offensive that many have tried to find extenuation in the impetus given Macbeth by the witches. However, the witches do not control behavior in the play. They are symbolic of evil and prescient of crimes that are to come, but they neither encourage nor facilitate Macbeth’s actions. They are merely a poignant external symbol of the ambition that is already within Macbeth. Indeed, when he discusses the witches’ prophecy with Lady Macbeth, it is clear that the possibility has been discussed before.

The responsibility cannot be shifted to Lady Macbeth, despite her goading. In a way, she is merely acting out the role of the good wife, encouraging her husband to do what she believes to be in his best interests. She is a catalyst and supporter, but she does not make the grim decision, and Macbeth never tries to lay the blame on her.

When Macbeth proceeds on his bloody course, there is little extenuation in his brief failure of nerve. He is an ambitious man overpowered by his high aspirations, yet Shakespeare is able to elicit feelings of sympathy for him from the audience. Despite the evil of his actions, he does not arouse the distaste audiences reserve for such villains as Iago and Cornwall. This may be because Macbeth is not evil incarnate but a human being who has sinned. Moreover, audiences are as much affected by what Macbeth says about his actions as by the deeds themselves. Both substance and setting emphasize the great evil, but Macbeth does not go about his foul business easily. He knows what he is doing, and his agonizing reflections show a person increasingly losing control over his own moral destiny.

Although Lady Macbeth demonstrated greater courage and resolution at the time of the murder of Duncan, it is she who falls victim to the physical manifestations of remorse and literally dies of guilt. Macbeth, who starts more tentatively, becomes stronger, or perhaps more inured, as he faces the consequences of his initial crime. The play examines the effects of evil on Macbeth’s character and on his subsequent moral behavior. The later murders flow naturally out of the first. Evil breeds evil because Macbeth, to protect himself and consolidate his position, is forced to murder again. Successively, he kills Banquo, attempts to murder Fleance, and brutally exterminates Macduff’s family. As his crimes increase, Macbeth’s freedom seems to decrease, but his moral responsibility does not. His actions become more cold-blooded as his options disappear.

Shakespeare does not allow Macbeth any moral excuses. The dramatist is aware of the notion that any action performed makes it more likely that the person will perform other such actions. The operation of this phenomenon is apparent as Macbeth finds it increasingly easier to rise to the gruesome occasion. However, the dominant inclination never becomes a total determinant of behavior, so Macbeth does not have the excuse of loss of free will. It does, however, become ever more difficult to break the chain of events that are rushing him toward moral and physical destruction.

As Macbeth degenerates, he becomes more deluded about his invulnerability and more emboldened. What he gains in will and confidence is counterbalanced and eventually toppled by the iniquitous weight of the events he set in motion and felt he had to perpetuate. When he dies, he seems almost to be released from the imprisonment of his own evil.

The first thought of acceding to the throne is suggested, and success in the attempt is promised, to Macbeth by the witches; he is therefore represented as a man whose natural temper would have deterred him from such a design if he had not been immediately tempted and strongly impelled to it.

A distinction [between Richard III and Macbeth] is made in the article of courage, though both are possessed of it even to an eminent degree; but in Richard it is intrepidity, and in Macbeth no more than resolution: in him it proceeds from exertion, not from nature; in enterprise he betrays a degree of fear, though he is able, when occasion requires, to stifle and subdue it. When he and his wife are concerting the murder, his doubt, 'If we should fail,' is a difficulty raised by apprehension; and as soon as that is removed by the contrivance of Lady Macbeth, he runs with violence into the other extreme of confidence. His question: 'Will it not be receiv'd,' &c., proceeds from that extravagance with which a delivery from apprehension and doubt is always accompanied. Then summoning all his fortitude, he proceeds to the bloody business without any further recoils. But a certain degree of restlessness and anxiety still continues, such as is constantly felt by a man not naturally very bold, worked up to a momentous achievement. His imagination dwells entirely on the circumstances of horror which surround him; the vision of the dagger; the darkness and the stillness of the night, etc... A resolution thus forced cannot hold longer than the immediate occasion for it: the moment after that is accomplished for which it was necessary, his thoughts take the contrary turn, and he cries out in agony and despair. He refuses to return to the chamber and complete his work. His disordered senses deceive him; he owns that 'every noise appals him.' He listens when nothing stirs; he mistakes the sounds he does hear; he is so confused, as not to distinguish whence the knocking proceeds. She, who is more calm, knows that it is at the south entry; she gives clear and distinct answers to all his incoherent questions, but he returns none to that which she puts to him. All his answers to the trivial questions of Lenox and Macduff are evidently given by a man thinking of something else; and by taking a tincture from the subject of his attention, they become equivocal.

Macbeth commits subsequent murders with less agitation than that of Duncan; but this is no inconsistency in his character; on the contrary, it confirms the principles upon which it is formed; for, besides his being hardened to the deeds of death, he is impelled by other motives than those which instigated him to assassinate his sovereign. In the one he sought to gratify his ambition; the rest are for his security; and he gets rid of fear by guilt, which, to a mind so constituted, may be the less uneasy sensation of the two. The anxiety which prompts him to the destruction of Banquo arises entirely from apprehension. For though one principle reason of his jealousy was the prophecy of the witches in favour of Banquo's issue, yet here starts forth another quite consistent with a temper not quite free from timidity. He is afraid of him personally; that fear is founded on the superior courage of the other, and he feels himself under an awe before him; a situation which a dauntless spirit can never get into. So great are these terrors that he betrays them to the murderers. As the murder is for his own security, the same apprehension which checked him in his designs upon Duncan, impel him to this upon Banquo.

Macbeth is always shaken upon great, and frequently alarmed upon trivial, occasions. Upon meeting the Witches, he is agitated much more than Banquo, who speaks to them first, and, the moment he sees them, asks them several particular and pertinent questions. But Macbeth, though he has had time to recollect himself, only repeats the same inquiry shortly, and bids them 'Speak, if you can:--What are you?' Which parts may appear to be injudiciously distributed; Macbeth being the principal personage in the play, and most immediately concerned in this particular scene, and it being to him that the Witches first address themselves. But the difference in their character accounts for such a distribution. Banquo's contemptuous defiance of the Witches seemed so bold to Macbeth, that he long after mentions it as an instance of his dauntless spirit, when he recollects that he 'chid the sisters.'

Macbeth has an acquired, though not a constitutional, courage, which is equal to all ordinary occasions; and if it fails him upon those which are extraordinary, it is however so well formed, as to be easily resumed as soon as the shock is over. But his idea never rises above manliness of character, and he continually asserts his right to that character; which he would not do if he did not take to himself a merit in supporting it. See I, vii, 46. Upon the first appearance of Banquo's ghost, Lady Macbeth endeavors to recover him from his terror by summoning this consideration to his view: 'Are you a man,' 'Aye, and a bold one,' &c. He puts in the same claim again, upon the ghost's rising again, and says, 'What man dare, I dare,' &c., and on its disappearing finally, he says, 'I am a man again.' And even at the last, when he finds that the prophecy in which he had confided has deceived him by its equivocation, he says that 'it hath cow'd my better part of man.' In all which passages he is apparently shaken out of that character to which he had formed himself, but for which he relied only on exertion of courage, without supposing insensibility to fear.

Macbeth wants no disguise of his natural disposition, for it is not bad; he does not affect more piety than he has: on the contrary, a part of his distress arises from a real sense of religion: which makes him regret that he could not join the chamberlains in prayer for God's blessing, and bewail that he has 'given his eternal jewel to the common enemy of man.' He continually reproaches himself for his deeds; no use can harden him: confidence cannot silence, and even despair cannot stifle, the cries of his conscience. By the first murder he put 'rancours in the vessel of his peace;' and of the last he owns to Macduff, 'My soul is too much charg'd With blood of thine already.'

Against Banquo he acts with more determination, for the reasons which have been given: and yet he most unnecessarily acquaints the murderers with the reasons of his conduct; and even informs them of the behaviour he proposes to observe afterwards, see III, i, 117-123; which particularly and explanation to men who did not desire it; the confidence he places in those who could only abuse it; and the very needless caution of secrecy implied in this speech, are so many symptoms of a feeble mind; which again appears, when, after they had undertaken the business, he bids them 'resolve themselves apart;' and thereby leaves them an opportunity to retract, if they had not been more determined than he is, who supposes time to be requisite for settling such resolutions. His sending a third murderer to join the others, just at the moment of action, and without notice, is a further proof of the same imbecility.

Besides the proofs which have been given of these weaknesses in his character, through the whole conduct of his designs against Duncan and Banquo, another may be drawn from his attempt upon Macduff, whom he first sends for without acquainting Lady Macbeth of his intention, then betrays the secret, by asking her after the company have risen from the banquet, 'How say'st thou, that Macduff denies his person At our great bidding?' 'Did you send to him, sir?' 'I hear it by the way: but I will send.' The time of making this enquiry when it has no relation to what has just passed otherwise than as his apprehension might connect it; the addressing of the question to her, who, as appears from what she says, knew nothing of the matter--and his awkward attempt then to disguise it, are strong evidence of the disorder of his mind.

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