Come you spirit,That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.–Lady MacbethMore so than any other Shakespearean play, Macbeth functions the most vividly as a psychoanalysis of the state of humanity’s development of a sense of sexual self. Now, in a time where terms such a transgendered, pansexual, or heteroflexible are integrated into daily conversation as much as articles of political dispute or details of the latest Yankees outing, the play is all the more fascinating because it validates both Shakespeare’s breadth of genius and our developing notion of what it means to be a sexual human. The play functions in essence as a looking glass for any age into which one might peer to observe the manner in which we have grown or perhaps not grown; it is an honest reflection of society and socio-sexual prescriptions in all of their positive and negative ramifications. The play compels us explicitly to challenge those and implicitly all social prescriptions that limit our humanity because of ideas engendered by imperfect cultural evolution.Specifically, the play is about social pressures and the consequent fissures within sexual identity. Readings of the line quoted above may eventually lead some or even many readers to mistakenly think that it is the desexualization or (perhaps worse) defeminization of Lady Macbeth that leads to her madness, and in anger label Shakespeare a misogynist and a chauvinist pig. Others may read into it as an empowering feminist line, in which Lady Macbeth is rejecting culture’s imposed gender on her and the tragedy lies in the fact that her detachment is fatal. Both of these interpretations are wrong2E Macbeth and his wife have their failure in not recognizing the difference between gender-stereotyped “emotions” and humanity’s inherent androgyny. This is difficult to see, especially since such a message is so radical compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. But even those plays, while supportive of the heteronormative, carry suggestions of a more liberated view of sexuality. Assertions that Mercutio was Romeo’s subconsciously spurned lover aside, Shakespeare’s plays abound with evidence towards his desire to break down cultural gender barriers. There is probably not a single play of his that does involve some character bemoaning what is “acceptable behavior” for his or her gender; it is the notion of transgendered behavior, however, and not simply anti-establishment tirades that provides the most insight into Shakespeare’s ideas about gender and the way “female” and “male” traits fit together. This is much greater than fleeting pleas by characters for a world free of social obligations that might restrict love (such as in Romeo and Juliet or All’s Well That Ends Well): Shakespeare is not rehashing the age old theme of a woman’s need to transcend socially shackles but rather exposing and critiquing a society that encourages defeminization to maintain patriarchy. Lady Macbeth becomes accomplice to both the socially subversive witches and the stifling social atmosphere, advancing the anti-life instead of pro-humanity agenda. She rejects what she thinks is her nature, but she is in fact rejecting Nature. This is the tragedy of Macbeth, and the singular cause for “this most bloody piece of work.”It is clear that Shakespeare embraced the notion of marriage and union; readings of A Winter’s Tale or Romeo and Juliet reveal the weight the union of a man and a woman carried in his mind. Macbeth suffers no lack of unification imagery; it is the nature of the play, however, to present a topic by showing its perverted side. Early on in the play, we witness the three witches encounter Macbeth and Banquo, but immediately prior to the meeting a telling exchange takes place. The first witch, angry at a sailor’s wife for not sharing chestnuts, says of the sailor, “I will drain him dry as hay.” As a succubus, she will prevent the sailor from being a fully able husband by stealing sexual satisfaction from the wife. In a twisted sense, this sexual act gives birth to discord because of its unnaturalness. This looks forward to the murder of Duncan (an unholy act born out of marriage) as well as the estrangement of the marriage itself. The problem with sex with the witches is that they do not embody female characteristics; as Banquo notes, they are bearded and thus forfeit the appellation “women.” We shall return to the physiological connection with the psychological in a moment, but the main point is that the witches are perverted sexual creatures who reject social norms and relish the subversion and torment of others who are bound to operate within those norms.Note that it is not their transgendered nature that makes witches evil; we have an example of successful meeting of female and male characteristics in the character of Duncan. In speaking to Macbeth, he expresses the intent of displaying “feminine” characteristics, “[m]y plenteous joys / wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves / In drops of sorrow.” Duncan notably displays no sense of shame at this act. This should be no surprise; any consideration of his previous comment to Macbeth draws a comparison between Duncan and Mother Nature: “I have begun to plant thee, and will labor / To make thee full of growing.” There is a juxtaposition of paternal and maternal imagery in Duncan’s presence, bringing together stereotypical feminine traits such as caring, maternity, and tears as well as stereotypical male traits that include honor, courage, and a warrior spirit. This placement and Duncan’s obvious nobility and elegance give the sense that a synergy of male and female spirits is not only possible, but beneficial. The more important fact is that it can occur within a single person, separate from the consummation of marriage.It is symbolic, then, that it is Lady Macbeth who designs to kill Duncan. While it is clear that the witches are Duncan’s spiritual opposite, Lady Macbeth’s assumes a more immediate and voluntary position. In distancing herself not only from femininity but from humanity that forces her into the antithetical position of Duncan. Where he strives to nurture, she seeks to corrupt. Upon reading her husband’s letter she notes,”[y]et do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.” This sentence is doubly damning both for what she says overtly and what she also reveals unconsciously. She reveals that her husband possesses “feminine” characteristics: his nature is full of “milk,” a distinctly female fluid. More telling, however, is her conception that there could be too much “human kindness;” this is referring, after all, to a man who has just returned from a battle in which “he unseam’d [Macdonwald] from the nave to the chaps, / And fix’d his head upon our battlements.” But the word that is truly traitorous to her thoughts is the word “human.” Lady Macbeth has separated “humanity” from “kindness.”This failure to negotiate differences is repeated when she plots to murder Duncan. Her famous soliloquy begs to be misinterpreted, but we shall avoid that temptation.Come, you spiritsThat tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,And fill me from the crown to the toe top-fullOf direst cruelty! make thick my blood;Stop up the access and passage to remorse,That no compunctious visitings of natureShake my fell purpose, nor keep peace betweenThe effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,And take my milk for gallLooking at it purely from a physiological perspective makes apparent her mistake; it is impossible to separate one’s self from one’s body, but she attempts to do so in the vain hope that physiological detachment will equate to psychological detachment from her “feminine” characteristics. The term “unsex” is accompanied by the demand to “make thick my blood” so as to “stop of the access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature.” This plea may apply to the stopping of the heart, making one cruel and remorseless (and eventually dead) and immune to attacks of the conscience. Equally likely, however, is the supposition that Lady Macbeth is speaking of the uterus and the vaginal canal; “make thick my blood” to stop “compunctious visits” would then refer to menstruation. This would also fit with the physiological development of her thoughts, as she moves on from the primary female genitalia to the secondary by demanding that her breast-milk be turned to gall. These demands, especially when taken with her constant abuse of the thought that what is “Natural” is weak, make obvious the fact that she is mistakenly distancing herself from her humanity and not her femininity.Continuing this line of thought reveals the truth about Macbeth’s super-masculinization at Lady Macbeth’s hands. Macbeth, as we know from Duncan and Lady Macbeth heels, has within him a complement of feminine characteristics. But, in true form to maintain a value of social criticism, Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth attack his masculinity for waffling in his decision to kill Duncan, asking Macbeth if he would “live a coward in thine own esteem”. As we know, Lady Macbeth succeeds, but at what is not precisely clear; if it was super-masculinization that she aimed for, why is that inherently evil? We discover that this is not the case, it is instead a defeminization that she succeeds in effecting and thus a separation from Macbeth’s correct nature. Much like an overzealous gardener, Lady Macbeth deluges Macbeth with masculinity (so much so that he makes a sarcastic remark about it) and drowns his inherent femininity and any chance that they might have had at salvation.In the end, the epicene Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deteriorate into husks of human beings; Macbeth realizes “[that he] almost forgot the taste of fears” while Lady Macbeth finally kills herself in a final act of dehumanization. It is interesting and tragic, of course, that Macbeth learns to fear again and that Lady Macbeth goes insane: both of these are stereotypically “feminine” characteristics which they have struggled so mightily to eviscerate. Failure aside, the Macbeths do manage to disrupt society inasmuch as they buck the audience’s notions regarding the conventions of masculinity and femininity. “Look,” Shakespeare is saying, “the perversion of sexuality within our culture is capable of destroying nations, families, and couples.” Shakespeare is not, however, saying that social incarceration is a death sentence. He is instead speaking into existence the possibility of sexual elevation, wherein his readers would believe in a positive androgyny of feminine and masculine, and thus at least accept if not strive towards it.
The collective minds of people in England during the time of Shakespeare struggled to explain the unexplainable; they struggled to understand randomness and human nature. They believed that from the beginning of time a certain cosmic order had emerged. This order was expressed in the Elizabethan Chain of Being. When something or someone stepped out of place it would send the universe into total chaos. There would not be mere confusion, as the modern definition would imply, it would send the cosmos into a downward spiral destroying all life unless this natural order was restored. “We lose some of the immensity of Elizabethan tragedy, the irony of its comedy and the insult of its raillery,” (Elizabethan World Order; Cynthia Fuhrman) because this mindset is unknown to modern readers. Shakespeare uses the element of Elizabethan chaos to emphasize the tragedy of Macbeth. Shakespeare carefully illustrates the violation of the Elizabethan Chain of Being through symbolism in nature that runs parallel to events in the play. The common thread is the chaotic element. The witches’ opening line ” Fair is foul and foul is fair” (Act I, Scene I, line 12) summarizes the plot before it is even laid out. Shakespeare played on the Elizabethan peoples’ fear of the unexplainable powers of evil acting to reverse a natural order. The witches represented evil and by speaking those words they foreshadowed destruction. The oxymoron in the words does not exist for the purpose of confusing the reader and adding an air of mystery. The purpose is to strike the reader with the importance of the events that would continue forward in the play. The natural world in Macbeth followed a cyclical pattern. At the beginning there was a semblance of order in nature.All beings fit nicely in their niche. However the weather carried foreboding on the wind that gave way to chaos. When Macbeth disturbed the order by destroying a life he left a gap in the chain, he became the stone that caused a ripple to spread from shore to shore. Duncan’s unplanned removal created a space that had to be filled. Naturally his sons would be next in line. The disturbance of his untimely death could be resolved by the next logically sequential move. There could not be an empty spot, yet by Macbeth, rather than Malcom, stepping in, it created a space that had to be filled. This would continue down the chain until the order of the universe was in shambles.At the peak disorder, one sees nature in an uproar. For example, a natural herbivore turned cannibalistic without warning; horses that were docile in captivity escaped in a rage and devoured one another. The folly of a man’s greed and thirst for power affected the stables, however indirectly. It caused confusion and terror in the hearts of the characters. Darkness fell when it should have been daylight. ” By the clock ’tis day, and yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp. Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, that darkness does the face of the earth entomb when living light should kiss it?” (Act II, Scene 4, lines 5- 11) Without a proper understanding of the Elizabethan mindset the reader cannot grasp the intensity or see a cause for it. The wind screaming with shrieks of death and the unlikely defeat of the mighty falcon were Shakespeare’s other prominent incidents in nature. In addition, the weather was increasingly terrible leading up to the climax of the play. With the gradual restoration of order the phenonema in nature was eliminated. The development of the characters was a direct result of corruption in the Elizabethan Chain of Being. Each individual emerged and was deeply affected by the displacement due to Duncan’s murder. There was chaos within each person. Macbeth was neither honorable nor trustworthy from the start and amidst the confusion he traveled down a darkened road to insanity. The terrific horror that he should have felt at his deeds was absent, an unnatural occurrence. ” Not in the legions of horrid hell can come a devil more damned in evils to top Macbeth” (Act IV, Scene 3 ,lines 66-68) He became increasingly paranoid and delusional. His soul was muddled beyond recognition at the time of his demise. Lady Macbeth was clever and her ambition prompted her to stand out of her natural place by shirking the patriarchal power of the day. She too was destroyed as the Elizabethan Chain was restored. Shakespeare designed his play with careful purpose. Almost every mishap in the play could be linked back to the original disturbance caused by the murder of Duncan. According to Fuhrman, with an amateur understanding of the Elizabethan Chain of Being the correlation becomes obvious. It evokes a sense of fear and empathy for the characters. The true plight was not the brutal murder of a beloved king by a conniving noble, it was widespread disorder and destruction that endangered the world as it was known.
In Shakespeare’s, Macbeth, there seems to be an uncanny connection between the images of sleep and nature. The play refers to the results of nature being thwarted, and since sleep is the primarily natural function of every human being, its seems the most appropriate in relaying the theme. Macbeth, in his natural state, is an honorable member of the King’s loyal court. At the time he is introduced, he is being promoted to Thane of Cowdor because the former thane had been treasonous against the state of Scotland. Upon meeting the witches, Macbeth begins to consider rebellion against his natural state, yet nature remains static until Macbeth murders the King Duncan, as he sleeps. When “Lord Glamis had murdered sleep” (II. 2. 41), the downward spiral of nature changing its course is propelled. When Macbeth murders Duncan in his sleep, he murders sleep itself, the most natural thing in the world, thus causing nature itself to be skewed on both a personal and cosmic level. The witches themselves begin the idea of nature not being as it seems. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I.1.12). Banquo notices their unnaturalness. “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so. “(I. 3. 45-47) When they disappear, Macbeth points out that they are unnatural. ” And what seemed corporal, melted, as breath into the wind.” (I. 3. 81) Macbeth is a natural warrior, and has already distinguished himself as such. Yet with the introduction of the witches, Macbeth is introduced to something unnatural, beyond the scope of his familiarity, and begins to consider murdering outside of war, something that is unnatural to him. “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes so my single state of man that function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not.” (I. 3. 139-142) Lady Macbeth tries to convince her husband what it means to repress natural emotions and carry out promises. “I have given suck, and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done to this.” (I.7.54-58) As Macbeth passes the room of Donalbain and Malcom after he murders their father, he hears them mutter “Murder!” in their sleep. Nevertheless, as one says “God bless us”, Macbeth is unable to answer “Amen.” (II. 2. 23-29) Macbeth had killed before, as a soldier, but the personal murder he had just committed was an unnatural act, and so he was unable to participate in a natural act, such as prayer. This idea of Christianity being natural and anything else unnatural is promulgated during the curse of the witches as they prepare a cauldron spell. “Liver of blaspheming JewNose of Turk and Tartar’s lips, finger of birth-strangled babe, ditch delivered by a drab”(IV.1.26-31). The witches, unnatural as they are, are able to take what is natural and successfully negate it.Macbeth himself, although he is being introduced to the possibility of the natural turning unnatural, is not witness to it himself until he commits an act that goes against nature. He kills Duncan in his sleep, as an effort to fulfill the prophecy bestowed upon him by the unnatural witches. Yet as he murders sleep, he succeeds in murdering his own natural state, thus thwarting nature all around him. “Macbeth shall sleep no more!” (II. 2. 4) refers to changes in both Macbeth and the cosmos. With the murder of “the Lord’s anointed temple” (II.3. 69), nature has gone wild. Lennox describes the unruly night. “Where we lay, our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say, lamentings heard I’th’air, strange screams of death, and prophesying with accents terrible of dire combustion and confused events new hatched to th’woeful time.my young remembrance cannot parallel a fellow to it.” (II. 3. 53-63). The old man, upon describing his reaction to Ross, gives a sense that this significant event carries huge implications on a cosmic level, not just for Macbeth. “Threescore and ten I can remember well, within the volume of which time I have seem hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night hath trifled former knowings.” (II. 4. 1-5). With this murder of sleep, nature as a whole has changed. The calmness that once existed was killed as well, as the people no longer felt that relations could be held in a natural way. The ramifications hold true for Macbeth, on a personal plain, as he tries to get rid of anyone who is a potential enemy, continuously returning to the witches to prophesize what is more to come. Thematically, Macbeth is initially a great warrior, but as events pursue, his nature changes. Macbeth continues to kill, but his killings become less brave. He kills Duncan and the Chamberlains as they sleep and hires men to kill Banquo so he won’t have to do it himself. His nature begins to change as he changes nature. Lady Macbeth, she who herself had preached to Macbeth to repress his nature and do what he had promised, is subject to the consequences as well, as her sleeping patterns become unnatural. “I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.” (V. 1. 3-7) She is asleep, but she has no rest. Her sleep has been murdered as well. Macbeth has succeeded in murdering sleep and thus changing nature.Macbeth had always thought nature could be depended upon, not realizing that he himself going against it has proven otherwise. The apparitions brought by the witches prophesize that “nobody born of woman shall harm Macbeth” (IV. 1. 80-81) and that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.” (IV. 1. 32-35) Macbeth is assured that he will be safe as long as nature follows its course. Yet Malcom and Macduff, upon hearing about the murder of Macduff’s family, seek revenge against Macbeth, and in variations of the original prophecies, the predictions come true. The advancing troops of Macduff camouflage themselves in branches from Birnam Wood, and Macduff declares that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”(V.7.44-45). The C-section of Macduff proves that sometimes nature cannot rely on itself completely and needs to be helped by humanity, thus revealing to Macbeth that he too has managed to help nature, although not positively. His murder has led to the extinguishing of emotion, a quality inherent in the nature of man. “Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, cannot once start me.” ( V. 5. 14-15) To him, life no longer has meaning, it is just going through the motions. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (V. 5. 23- 28). This uttered by Macbeth who had been a man of so much promise as “Brave Macbeth.” (I. 2. 16) Macbeth, who had once considered murder to be so unnatural, had not realized that “toad, that under cold stone days and nights has thirty-one sweltered venom sleeping got.”(IV. 1. 6-8). Sleep is generally viewed as a time of rest and openness to the world, where man is in a passive role. By taking advantage of the natural sleep of Duncan, Macbeth has produced a poison throughout the state, thus changing the state of sleep, and consequently nature as a whole.Macbeth had never realized that he could change nature, and so going against nature to commit the unnatural had never fazed him. Yet he had murdered sleep, the most natural thing possessed by man, thus affecting the sleep of all of Scotland thereafter. Even more so, he had changed nature itself, causing things to happen that normally would not have, and had changed the nature of himself, the warrior Macbeth. He had once held no fears, and yet as King, he was ridden. He had once had so much confidence in success, and yet as he was held on a stake to die, he had none. The unnatural had always existed in the world, Macbeth had just never dabbled in it. As Macbeth accepted the challenge of the witches to go against both divine and personal nature, he had not realized that it was a challenge, and that was his hubris. He murdered sleep, unaware that sleep was man’s in his most natural state, and would thus result in nothing short than the pursuit of the unnatural.
In Greek tragedy, inevitability plays an important role, portraying the protagonists as pawns of the fates, whose roles in the tragedy are distributed arbitrarily and without justice. The outcomes of these roles are decided before the play even begins, for example in Sophocles’ Antigone, and thus any actions of the characters during the play are futile, as they cannot affect the outcome. In the worst tragedy of all, the characters must return again and again to play out the same roles, as the wheel turns.Of course, Shakespeare and the other Jacobean playwrights were not subject to the conventions of Greek tragedy, but nevertheless would have been aware of it and been influenced by it. Inevitability is important in Shakespeare’s tragedies too, both as a dramatic device and as a tool in conveying the play’s message. A feeling of inevitability keeps the audience enthralled as it watches apparently hopeful events in the knowledge that there is an inexorable downturn sometime in the near future. This leads the audience to sympathise more with the tragic hero, as one caught up in circumstances beyond his control, although of his own making (I will return to this point later). There is an important difference between inevitability and predictability, however. If the events are predictable, the audience will quickly become bored and the tragic effect will be lost; whereas incidents arousing pathos have a greater effect when they occur unexpectedly, but at the same time as a direct consequence of one another. An example of this is at the end of King Lear, when Lear enters carrying Cordelia ‘dead in his arms’, as the stage direction says. This event could not have been foreseen, especially as in the preceding lines there has been a sense of hope building for the first time in the play, but there is a sense of inevitability to it, and it is as a consequence of Edmund’s evil. I believe that the play would be incomplete and far less powerful if it did not contain this final hammer blow to hope. If Cordelia were to survive, it would contradict all that the play has been saying up to this point about the injustice and the futility of life; Lear’s death on its own would not have been enough, because there would have been with it a sense of fulfilment and justice, as he has been reconciled with Cordelia and would thus die a happy man. The tragedy is multiplied vastly by this denial of Lear’s contentment, and he consequently dies confused and wondering what all the pain and destruction and loss has been for. One of the greatest tragedies in the play, and there are many, is that Lear dies without finding an answer to his question, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” Cordelia does not in any way deserve the fate that she receives she is only in England because of her selfless love for her father but one could argue that she precipitated the tragedy in refusing to take part in her father’s ‘love match’. However, her suffering is completely disproportionate to the magnitude of her crime, which accentuates the tragedy even further.There is a sense of hope in other Shakespeare tragedies, for example in Hamlet, when the ‘young prince’ returns from England in Act V, he is not so naïve as he has been in the rest of the play; he has overcome some of his caprice, and begins to take responsibility for the first time. However, by this time the tragedy is too far advanced for him to change the outcome. Ophelia’s death, due to the slaying of Polonius, makes the position irretrievable for Hamlet, and only amplifies his hatred for the world, the more so because he knows that it is his fault and his egotism does not like to be reminded of its culpability. It is only after his fate is sealed and he has been wounded with the poisoned rapier that Hamlet finally does what he should have done at the beginning and kills his uncle. This tragedy is akin to how Gloucester only gains his insight after his eyes have been pulled out, as it is only when he is dying that Hamlet overcomes his hesitation and takes the act which could have saved the waste of life and promise that has occurred because of it. Thus the hope is again dashed by the inevitability of the passage of events.In Macbeth, there is hope at the start of the play that Macbeth may overcome his temptation and let the prophesy fulfil itself without his perpetrating any unlawful acts, as he says, ‘If chance will have me king, then chance may crown me / Without my stir.” (I:iii:141-3). However Duncan’s stupidity and lack of tact in the very next scene, when he extols Macbeth’s virtues for a page and a half, saying “More is thy due than more than all can pay”, and then names the unimpressive Malcolm as his heir, effectively signs his own death warrant. Surely at least a step towards rewarding Macbeth with “more than all than pay” would be to name him as Prince of Cumberland, rather than Malcolm, who has been with his father several miles from the fighting while Macbeth and the other soldiers risked their lives for him. From this point onward the events of the play are inevitable, as Macbeth says of the appointment, “That is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, / For in my way it lies.” Up to this point, it has been possible that Duncan might name Macbeth heir, and thus he would not have had to “stir”.One might argue that the ambition and complete lack of self-control that Macbeth exhibits later in the play must also be present at this stage, and therefore not only is Duncan prudent in not naming Macbeth heir, but that even had the King done so, Macbeth would not have been able to wait until Duncan died of natural causes to claim what was prophesised as his. Macbeth’s “may crown me / Without my stir” can be seen as a weak effort to convince himself that he will be strong enough to resist the temptation when put in the context of his earlier actions. Macbeth is reported to ‘start’ (I:iii:50) at the news that he will be King, and this may well signify that he has already dreamed of ruling, and that he knows he will have trouble resisting. This impression of anxiety is reinforced by his wish to know more from the witches, and his weak-sounding assertion that “to be king / Stands not within the prospect of belief – / No more than to be Cawdor,” since he knows already at this point that one of the three prophecies has come true already. This attempt to deceive himself and his companion Banquo falls through when, upon hearing that he is indeed Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth displays clear ambition: “Thane of Cawdor! / The greatest is behind – Thanks for your pains.” Thus it could be argued that even before the beginning of the play these character traits of Macbeth’s, dangerous when combined, make the events of the play inevitable. Therefore it is debatable whether the events of the play are directly precipitated by the Weird Sisters’ prophecies, or whether they merely reflect the desires and as-yet hidden mindset of Macbeth at the start of the play. If he is a puppet of the witches, it could be argued that he generates more sympathy because his actions are beyond his control, whereby the tragedy is increased because the suffering that he endures is even greater than the level of his crimes. However, if one believes that the source of Macbeth’s actions comes from within himself, only uncovered and encouraged by external influences, then, as in King Lear if one believes that there are no gods in the play, all the actions are perpetrated by humans and this provides a bleak impression of the underlying cruelty and selfishness of human nature. This view is supported when one of the witches says of the first apparition, “He knows thy thought” (IV:i:68), implying that the root of their words is within Macbeth’s own head and thoughts Macbeth merely lacks the willpower to act upon his impulses without what he says as promises of his success. At the witches (who could therefore be seen as the tempters of Satan) bidding Macbeth does indeed “spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes above wisdom, grace, and fear” (III:v:30-31).In Othello there is always the hope that ‘the Moor’ may come to his senses, see through the scheming of Iago (it wouldn’t, frankly, be difficult to do so), and forgive Desdemona. Even at the last, just as Othello is about to smother Desdemona, the audience has hope that he may yield to what seems blatant common sense and believe his wife and not Iago. The pleading of the innocent and self-condemning Desdemona incites our deepest sympathy, and makes the tragic atrocity by the deceived Othello all the worse, for we cannot quite believe that it would be carried out. Again like Gloucester in King Lear, whose deception bears a strong resemblance to the worryingly easy duping of Othello, the tragedy is that it is only after an irrevocable act has taken place that the deceived party realises what has happened Othello obviously cannot take back his wrong, and Gloucester cannot help his son after his eyes have been pulled out, though he wishes him prosperity, and both wish to commit suicide; but Gloucester’s attempt is foiled by Edgar. In Othello, once the council decide to let Desdemona accompany Othello to Cyprus, there is a sense of foreboding about the events to come. As shown in Richard II’s failing as a king, the personal life and the role of a leader should be kept separate, and the personality and intelligence of a leader are not necessarily indicators of how he will perform at his job Henry V was a great King, but had many failings as a man. Thus when Othello mixes work and family life it is inevitable that there will be trouble. What one cannot foresee in Othello is the ease with which Othello is fooled by Iago, and this stupidity on the part of the hero puts a strain on the tragedy, as the audience may be in two minds as to whether they sympathise with Othello, given his stupidity and readiness, even eagerness, to believe that his wife has been unfaithful to him. It is absolutely necessary that the audience sympathises with the fate of the protagonist, as if it does not it will not care whether he or she dies, and the element of tragedy will be lost. The audience must see in the lead character a reflection, however small, of itself, and a representation of human limitations we feel pity for a man who does not deserve his misfortunes, and we fear for someone like ourselves1. Furthermore, the protagonist needs to be fundamentally virtuous or just, suffering misfortune not because of depravity or vice but by an error of judgement2, often because the character is temporarily ‘blinded’ by a character flaw that prevents them from acting as they normally would. Thus it depends upon one’s personal reaction as to whether the tragedy in Othello works or not, and how willing one is to forgive Othello his stupidity. Personally, I think the tragedy still works, but it is nowhere near as crushing as the other ‘major tragedies’: King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.This ‘blindness’, causing lack of reason, is another common feature of Shakespeare’s tragedies3. It is akin to the Greek concept of ‘Hamartia’, the ‘fatal flaw’ that causes the character to contribute to their own downfall. Hamlet is blinded by his hatred of the world around him, and his obsessive nature and deep-rooted egotism causes him to pontificate unreasonably over the wider connotations of the acts that he must carry out. He knows that his hesitation is unnecessary, and guiltily tries to find excuses to delay his decision, first pretending that he needs more evidence, saying “I’ll have grounds / More relative than this: the play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”(II:ii:605-8). This reasoning is undermined because it ends with a couplet, symbolising Hamlet’s own acceptance that he is making excuses. In the most famous of his soliloquies (III:I:58-92), Hamlet debates whether it is “nobler” to give oneself up to “outrageous Fortune”, or to end it all by taking one’s own life. He declares, “conscience does make cowards of us all,” and concludes that were it not for “the dread of something after death” which “puzzles the will”, no-one “would bear the whips and scorns of time”. Thus he lacks the decisiveness to either take his life or to carry out his uncle’s murder, although he “[has] cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t”(IV:iv:47-8), and even admits that “thinking to precisely on th’ event, / A thought which quarter’d hath but one part wisdom, / And ever three parts coward.”(IV:iv:44-5) It is only when he is dying that Hamlet overcomes his compunctions and cowardice, “whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple,” and commits the act. Of course by this time it is too late.King Lear is a more complicated case, as he is blinded by a combination of wrath, pride and vanity. The vain ‘love match’ that he sets up to flatter himself publicly is a political blunder of huge magnitude, as is the very idea of splitting up a kingdom. According to Machiavelli, this is one of the worst things that a ruler can do, and this is certainly reinforced by the events in the play. From the moment that Lear splits up his kingdom, it is inevitable that there is going to be turmoil the different factions will eventually succumb to greed and there will be a war. To make matters worse, Lear has already decided which area of the kingdom will go to which daughter, saying to Cordelia, “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (I:i:82) This shows that the contest does not even have a practical purpose; it is purely for the benefit of Lear’s ego that he asks his daughters to flatter him in public, and it is for this reason that he reacts so badly to Cordelia’s answer of “Nothing”. It is a blow to his ego, and a direct slight to him in public, in front of the court. This wounds his pride and causes him to vent his wrath upon her, but in his rage he fails to understand the real meaning of Cordelia’s answer, which is that she cannot beat her sisters’ complicated falsified verbose declarations of love, as her love is of a simple and pure nature. It is in this fit of anger that Lear banishes Cordelia and Kent, the two people that love him best and who he needs to protect him against his other daughters, in a truly spectacular display of political incompetence which makes inevitable his downfall and the all-pervading waste of life that occurs in the final stages of the play. Although Lear is undoubtedly culpable, the suffering that he undergoes is out of all proportion to the crimes that he perpetrates. His subsequent reduction to the level of “unaccommodated man” allows him to rid himself of the pride and vanity that provoked his wrath, and thus he is able to make insightful decisions and understand his earlier mistakes, although it is too late for him to do anything about the state of events in the play, since he has given up all his power. Ironically he needed to lose power to gain insight, but he needs power to use this insight. In this way the audience gains sympathy for Lear, “a man more sinned against than sinning” (III:ii:58-9), and this makes the tragedy work.Macbeth is blinded by “vaulting ambition”: even though he knows that the witches’ prophecies’ are going to cause trouble, and, as Banquo says, “[fears] / Things that do sound so fair” (I:iii:51-2). Even so, he tells his wife, in an act which he must know will lead to her encouraging his ambition, hers being just as keen as his own. Either Macbeth knows this and lacks the judgement or strength to resist telling her, or he does not know his wife as well as he thinks he does. It may be that he tells her in the knowledge that she will help him to overcome his weakness and force him to act, which he could not do on his own. Macbeth’s ambition makes him impatient when it would be more prudent to wait for his prophesy to fulfil itself, especially as he has “no spur / To prick the sides of my content but only / Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself.” Once he is King, he could stop there and get away with his crime. However, his ambition wishes his sons to be kings as well, which means that he has to prevent Banquo’s prophesy from coming good. With his high level of intelligence, Macbeth should realise that if something is preordained, and as these prophecies have shown themselves to be true, nothing that he can do will change the course of events. It is futile to attempt to change the inevitable, but his judgement is marred by ambition, and he refuses to accept this. Having discovered that the witches’ fortune telling is a “poisoned chalice” the first time around, that indeed “Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / to plague the inventor” (I;vii:9-10), Macbeth should know better than to go back to ask them for more, and even says, “Though you untie the winds and let them fight / Against the churches; though the yesty waves / confound and swallow navigation upanswer me” (IV:i:51-9). However, again his ambition intervenes with his powers of reasoning, and he succumbs to temptation.Macbeth’s ambition is similar to Edmund’s in King Lear, in that they both go against the natural order. The difference is that Macbeth suffers terribly from guilt over being “[Duncan’s] kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed (I:vii:13-14), whereas Edmund states, “All’s with me that I can fashion fit,” a very Machiavellian response which shows that unlike Macbeth he has no respect for the natural order that he is subverting. Macbeth’s guilt and resulting mental turmoil is symbolised by the storm, which Lennox describes saying, “My young remembrance cannot parallel / A fellow to it” (II:iii:58-9). This is similar to the storm in Lear, of which Kent says, “Since I was a man, / Such sheets of fireI never / remember to have heard” (III:ii:44-6). Although Macbeth’s guilt is the reason why he fails, causing him to give himself away when he sees the apparition of Banquo’s ghost, it is also the reason why we sympathise with him and therefore why the tragedy works. If he were like Edmund we would not be sympathetic in the least, and the pathos would be lost.The concept of “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I:i:9) is key in Macbeth, and indeed Macbeth’s first words are, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I:iii:36): he understands that things are not always as good or bad as they appear his win on the battlefield has come at great cost of life. This realisation sets him apart from the more simple but just as loyal Banquo, who cannot see the danger in the witches’ words. This simplicity is in many ways Banquo’s saving grace, as it prevents him from being tempted as Macbeth is, and saves him from such “vaulting ambition” which would cause him problems. This difference between the two thanes is expressed in the witches’ apparently contradictory remarks, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater” (I:iii:64), and “Not so happy, but much happier” (I:iii:65). Although Banquo’s intelligence is lesser than Macbeth’s, the latter’s inability to act upon this intelligence is a tragic fault that Banquo does not have, and which again contributes to the inevitability of his downfall. Tragically, Macbeth’s lack of willpower prevents him from doing what his intelligence knows to be right. In the same way, Banquo’s simplicity allows him to be happier than Macbeth, as he is not tormented by the connotations of the Sisters’ words, and he is less ambitious because he knows himself to be of lesser qualities, or, at least, less noticeable qualities, and is content with his lower position. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that the witches predict that his sons will be kings, but not he himself. Ironically, in requesting to know his own future (he does not, unlike Macbeth, appreciate the danger of knowing it, and indeed for him it is not a temptation), Banquo unwittingly causes his own death and compounds Macbeth’s downfall-to-come if Macbeth had not known that Banquo’s sons are to be kings, he would not have had to kill Banquo and his own inner torment would be less.Othello is blinded by his “jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure” (II:i:300-1), an overpowering insecurity which causes him to be suspicious at the slightest encouragement from Iago, who allows Othello’s imagination to do most of the work. As soon as the jealousy takes hold of him, things that seem obvious to the audience are incomprehensible to Othello, and everything his wife does seems to him to be an act of unfaithfulness. Othello is right in his prediction that “when I love [Desdemona] not, / Chaos is come again” (III:iii:92-3).Thus the fundamental theme that is presented in tragedy is one of inevitable waste, both of life and of promise, which presents a bleak picture of the ultimate futility of human life. In King Lear, the principal waste is that of the Christ-like Cordelia, who sacrifices herself out of love for her father and is an innocent victim, if one believes that the act of splitting up the kingdom would have led to conflict even without her stubborn refusal to take part in his game. She is an intensely virtuous figure, as we discover in Acts IV and V, and when Lear enters with her “dead in his arms,” it is possibly the most devastating moment in literature. In Macbeth the innocent victims are Lady Macduff, her children, and Banquo; in Othello, Desdemona; in Hamlet, Ophelia. All these are killed for reasons that have nothing to do with them; they are caught up in the tragedy and become victims of the downfall of the protagonist. Along with this waste of life the tragic heroes themselves are a great waste, as they are great men who are destroyed by one or more relatively minor character flaws (their ‘blindness’, as outlined above, is one example) that negate their greatness in other aspects almost entirely. The most devastating revelation, however, is that this waste is a consequence of human nature, and not only are the incidences of it recurring; they are inevitable.Bibliography1. Paraphrased from Aristotle’s Poetics2. Ibid.3. Thank you Ian Smith for the original point!
Separating qualities common to one ‘set’ or ‘type’ of Shakespeare’s plays which are not common to the plays as a whole is a difficult task: it would no doubt be possible to find evidence of any feature uniting ‘the Tragedies’ within any of Shakespeare’s plays, if one looked hard enough. This is not surprising if one considers that the one thing above all others that unites Shakespeare’s plays is that they portray human life, and the nature of human life does not change. Thus the basis for each and every play is the same: only the circumstances change. Furthermore, all cases of tragedy are, paradoxically, unique and also very similar to everyday events (albeit extreme examples of them), and both parts of this paradox are necessary for the tragedy to work. If the tragic events were not set apart and special in some way, they would be dismissed as everyday occurrences, and if they were not close to common experience the audience would not empathise with the characters. Either way the element of tragedy would be lost. I firmly believe that what Shakespeare was interested in exploring in his plays was the way in which people react to different situations, both psychologically and through actions. This is borne out by the fact that Shakespeare only invented one of his plots himself ? The Tempest ? while for all his other plays he adapted tales of folklore, other writers’ work and, in the case of the Histories, historical events themselves. This is in no way a shortcoming in Shakespeare’s talent or something which detracts from his plays, for Shakespeare was not interested in simply telling stories: he wanted to put the very nature of human life on the stage. As Joseph Conrad said, “Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art, as of life”.Thus rather than having a distinct set of uniting features, certain features are more prominent in the tragedies than in other plays. The tragedies are, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, detailed studies of the psychology of one character, the tragic hero. That the plays are generally named after the main protagonist supports this theory: in Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet, the presence of two tragic heroes indicates a wider study ? these two plays are more concerned with the workings of society and the characters’ interactions with that society than other plays. This wider concern is also shown by the lack of soliloquies in the two plays. The Comedies are given more general titles, for example Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure: they explore even more general problems in society, and are less concerned with the individual characters’ reactions than the situation as a whole. That is not to say that the tragedies are unconcerned with society ? many of the tragic heroes are rulers or become rulers during the play, and we see that their situation affects the working of the entire kingdom, for example the storms in Macbeth and King Lear which symbolise the disruption of the natural order when a king is deposed unlawfully.This focus on the tragic hero means that the success of a tragic play hinges around the audience’s reaction that character. The very basis of tragedy lies in the audience’s reaction to a situation where the fundamentally virtuous or just protagonist experiences misfortunes disproportionate to his culpability: misfortunes which he has in part brought upon himself ? not through depravity or vice but by an error of judgement. We must see in the lead character a reflection, however small, of ourselves, and a representation of human limitations ? we feel pity for a man who does not deserve his misfortunes, and we fear for someone like ourselves . If the audience does not like the protagonist then it will not sympathise with his fate and the tragic nature is lost because the complex mix of excitement and terror ultimately leading to catharsis will be replaced by indifference or even pleasure at the hero’s downfall and death. This is why some people have a problem with Othello ? the ease with which Iago dupes Othello into being jealous suggests that he is actually rather stupid and can lead the audience to a contemptuous reaction rather than a sympathetic one. Similarly it is important that the protagonist has a measure of culpability in his own misfortune ? if he does not then the situation is not tragic but merely unfortunate, and the hero simply unlucky to be caught up in circumstances beyond his control.Each of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is ‘blinded’ in some way by a character flaw which affects their judgement and causes them to react differently in the heat of the moment from the way in which they might otherwise. The flaw is generally one of temperament which allows the hero’s passions to get the better of him and overrule reason. Shakespeare studies characters’ reactions to extremes of emotion outside the normal sphere of experience and as a result of extraordinary events and thus the audience can forgive the characters’ judgement being a little wayward ? the tragedy comes in the crushing and disproportionate consequences which follow the error, and which turn the audience’s reaction from pity to the deepest sympathy.Macbeth is blinded by “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” (I.vii.27), an ambition that he cannot prevent himself from pursuing, even though he knows the dreadful consequences which will befall him, and the mental anguish which it will cause: Macbeth is perhaps the most purely psychological of the tragedies, showing as it does the inner turmoil of Macbeth and his wife, and their gradual descent into madness. Macbeth’s famous soliloquy at the beginning of I.vii brilliantly shows the torment that he is going through ? he knows that if he acts upon his ambition it will destroy him, yet he cannot resist doing it anyway, and laments his imminent downfall, wishing “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…that but this blow might be the be-all and end-all!” (lines 1-5) But he knows that “Bloody instructions…being taught, return / To plague the inventor” (9-10) ? he cannot “jump the life to come”, but must “have judgement here”. The audience has great sympathy for him, as he is a great man, highly intelligent and fiercely loyal up to this point, and although he says he has “no spur / To prick the sides of [his] intent”, one could argue that he was greatly insulted in I.iv when Duncan, having said to Macbeth that “More is [his] due than more than all can pay”, names Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and not Macbeth less than twenty lines later! This is less than politically shrewd as Malcolm is nowhere near as impressive as Macbeth, and downright rude given Duncan’s previous debt of thanks to Macbeth. This slight, combined with the witches’ cryptic promises and Duncan’s ill-timed visit to Macbeth’s castle, conspires to produce an opportunity well out-of-the-ordinary and a huge temptation for Macbeth. This is where the difference lies between Macbeth and the character of Edmund in King Lear, who has a similar all-consuming ambition ? Edmund’s rise is all of his own making, he knows exactly what he is doing, it is cool and calculated whereas Macbeth’s is a crime of passion and opportunism, and Edmund does not care one bit what is right or wrong ? his very aim is to subvert the accepted way of life. Like an Elizabethan version of Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, Macbeth “[lacks] restraint in the gratification of his various lusts”: if it is in his power to do something, he cannot but do it. It is Macbeth’s and Kurtz’s brilliance which is their downfall ? as Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, “no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil”.Othello is blinded by “jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure” (II:i:300-1), an overpowering insecurity which causes him to be suspicious at the slightest encouragement from Iago, who allows Othello’s imagination to do most of the work. The ease with which Iago persuades Othello that his wife and his most trusted officer are deceiving him is alarming, indeed there is almost eagerness in the speed with which he changes from devoted love to absolute hate: in barely more than three hundred lines Othello turns from professing that “when I love [Desdemona] not, / Chaos is come again” (III:iii:92-3) to “I’ll tear her all to pieces!” (III.iii.428). Although he tries to maintain that he is confident of his position and his wife’s loyalty, saying “exchange me for a goat, / When I shall turn the business of my soul / To such exsufflicate and blown surmises” (III.iii.178-180), the very fact that he does not immediately send Iago away in disgrace shows he is not as sure as he says. Very soon after he has given himself up so fully to “trifles light as air” (III.iii.319) that only a herd would do. This startling reversal suggests to me a predisposition to suspicion; that Othello expects to be treated differently from and less equally than other men because “[he is] black / And [has] not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have” (III.iii.260-2), and because he is “declined / Into the vale of years” (III.iii.292-3). This is not something to condemn him for in itself, as for a “Moor” to be in his position of success was unheard of, and no doubt he had other unseen enemies besides Iago (Desdemona’s father, for example, of whom it is said “[Desdemona’s] match was mortal to him” (V.ii.204) ). The fault comes in his judgement of character ? with tragic irony Othello turns on those who most respect and love him for the man that he is, while he trusts the racist who hates him for superficial reasons: as he says himself, he “loved not wisely, but too well” (V.ii.340). Iago really has to do very little: as with Macbeth and the Wyrd Sisters the roots are there from the start, and need only a little nurturing to flourish. I do not suggest that Othello’s motivation is in any way similar to Macbeth’s: the latter rejects conventional morality in return for absolute power, while Othello is merely misled by the amoral Iago but retains his innate virtuosity. However I believe that the element of tragedy is increased if some of the blame for Othello’s ‘duping’ is attributed to the protagonist himself, not for stupidity but for presupposing the guilt of Desdemona and Cassio, and for his weakness in not holding to his demand for proof. The errors of judgement that Othello makes while under the influence of his jealousy are grave, but the main part of the fault lies with Iago and we forgive Othello his misdirected passion ? he at least maintains the same moral code throughout, and as he says at the end, “naught did I in hate, but all in honour” (V.ii.292).Othello’s problems stem from a common mistake among the tragic heroes: he mixes his personal affairs with his public ones and his role as a leader when he allows Desdemona to accompany him to Cyprus. As shown in Richard II by Richard’s failing as a king, the personal life and the role of a leader should be kept separate, and the personality and intelligence of a leader are not necessarily indicators of how he will perform at his job ? Henry V was a great King, but had many failings as a man. Lear mixes the two worlds when he holds a public ‘trial’ for what should be intensely private declarations of love, and Macbeth lets his own personal ambitions completely obscure any thought of actually governing for the good of the wider kingdom. The most striking examples of private and public concerns overlapping come in Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. In the former love is very much something for the public arena, with grand gestures the only way to demonstrate genuine feelings: Octavius Caesar is shocked when his sister arrives without a grand entrance, saying “You come not / Like Caesar’s sister. The wife of Antony / Should have an army for an usher, and the neighs of horse to tell of her approach / Long ere she did appear.” Moreover, the crux of the play lies in Antony’s balancing of his private pleasures and his public duties. It seems that he has returned to the Antony of Julius Caesar when he brings about peace with Pompey and marries Octavia to pacify her brother Octavius, but gradually he gives in to his lust again, culminating in his retreat during the sea battle, when he abandons thoughts of fighting and blindly follows the Cleopatra’s retreating vessel, which turns possible victory to certain defeat. This is Antony’s ‘blindness’: he cannot maintain the balance between his public and private affairs, and lets each one affect the other. In Romeo and Juliet, the couple fight an ongoing battle to keep their very private feelings of love from the constraints that the social and religious institutions seek to impose on them. They meet at night and marry in secret, the opposite of Antony and Cleopatra’s public show. Eventually the only way the couple can defeat the public forces which threaten to destroy their love is to commit suicide: it is a final assertion of their private rights, their ultimate night.Romeo and Juliet does not follow the general trend of most of the tragedies in that it has two main protagonists, neither of whom conforms to the exact definition of the ‘tragic hero’ as someone who brings about their own downfall by a failing of character. Indeed we are told in the prologue exactly what will happen to the “star-cross’d lovers” ? they must die to end their families’ feud. It would be easy, after this beginning, to write off the events of the play as the mere “sport” of “wanton” fate, as Gloucester says in King Lear, but I think that this opening scene is loaded with irony and Shakespeare is in fact subtly sending up the widespread fatalistic views of his time. The play has more in common with its tragic peers than it would first appear ? the couple are ‘blinded’, just as the tragic heroes of other plays are, because when they fall into a love “as boundless as the sea” (II.ii.133), a love so strong that it overcomes fear and reason, their subsequent judgements are affected and they make choices which they otherwise would not have made. Their love is something which, once kindled, is beyond their direct control to a large extent ? one cannot control its ebb and flow ? but which undeniably originates from within them. Because of this duality, when their love brings them into conflict with their families, the social institutions and their religion we not only feel pity, but we recognise that they have a choice, however difficult, and could save their earthly bodies if they were willing to compromise their purity. This element of choice evokes a great deal of pathos and transforms our pity into deep sympathy.Tragically, the other choice that the couple has is “to end itself by death” (Gloucester in King Lear IV.vi.63) ? it is the only way that they can be together without compromising themselves and the purity of their love. Suicide is man’s final personal choice, the only way of absolutely and irreversibly taking control of life: in ending it. This is why Gloucester laments that even this last right has been denied him ? when suicide has failed he truly has nothing to live for, for human life is meaningless without the ability to choose: it becomes an absurdity. Hamlet agonises over whether to kill himself in order to escape the iniquity of the world, but shies away from committing the act, initially because “the Everlasting had fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self slaughter” (I.ii.131-2), but later the religious imagery fades away and is replaced by a fear of the “undiscovered country”. Hamlet concludes that it is only this “dread of something after death” that makes man “bear the whips and scorns of time” (III.i.70) ? if death’s country was charted territory, everyone would commit suicide. This theory is key when considering Romeo and Juliet’s suicides: they do not fear “unsubstantial death” (V.iii.103) but rather welcome it as a certainty after the uncertainty of life . There is a mixture of Christian and pagan imagery, for while there is an emphasis on earthly physical pleasures that will be given up in death, there is also a strong sense of a belief in some sort of “timeless” state after death in phrases such as “everlasting rest”, “dateless bargain” and Juliet’s “timeless end”. Above all Romeo and Juliet’s double suicide is a defiant denial of predestined fate and their status as “star cross’d” ? instead they show that it is always possible to take control and “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” (V.iii.111). That such a pure incarnation of love was not allowed to exist and they must kill themselves to take control is a damning indictment of their society.Romeo and Juliet’s transcendent love is both their blessing and their curse: it is the quality which makes the audience like them and that which sets them apart from ordinary people; but it is simultaneously the very thing which leads to their downfall and deaths, precisely because of its transcendent nature ? if their love had not been so intense or so beautiful, they would not have died to save it. This ‘duality of innocence’ is a common feature in many of the tragedies ? often the tragic hero’s ‘fault’ is linked to, or actually is, that trait which makes us like them in the first place. In this way, innocence can often achieve evil. David Daiches compares it to Eve’s temptation in Milton’s Paradise Lost:”If Satan, in the form of the serpent, had been telling the truth, then Eve would have done right to believe him and eat of the fatal fruit. Eve’s real fault was lack of sophistication; she was unsuspicious of what the serpent told her; she was, to use an American slang term, a ‘sucker’ and swallowed his story. But is it morally wrong to be a sucker ? as Eve was with respect to the serpent, as Othello was with respect to Iago, as Brutus was with respect to such sophisticates as Antony, as Hamlet was, we might almost say, with respect to life?” Shakespeare does not give an answer to this problem of ‘the morality of innocence’, though he examines it in many of the tragedies. We can conclude, however, that the ‘practical man’ is far from the peak of human success in Shakespeare’s eyes. Figures such as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleaopatra and Malcolm in Macbeth are portrayed as cold and uninteresting, being unmoved by the great passions which bring the rise and fall of the tragic heroes. They put me in mind of Tennyson’s phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” Truly these ‘practical men’ have never loved, and thus are monochrome sketches in comparison to the glorious Technicolor of the heroes ? brilliant and flawed is superior to ordinary and consistent.Inevitability is important in Shakespeare’s tragedies, both as a dramatic device and as a tool in conveying the play’s message. A feeling of inevitability keeps the audience enthralled as it watches apparently hopeful events in the knowledge that there is an inexorable downturn sometime in the near future. This leads the audience to sympathise more with the tragic hero, as one caught up in circumstances which he initiated but which have spiralled out of his control, as is the case in Macbeth, where once the hero has murdered Duncan it is inevitable that his reign of tyranny will escalate until he himself is destroyed. There is an important difference between inevitability and predictability, however: if the events are predictable, the audience will quickly become bored and the tragic effect will be lost, whereas incidents arousing pathos have a greater effect when they occur unexpectedly, but at the same time as a direct consequence of one another. An example of this is at the end of King Lear, when Lear enters carrying Cordelia ‘dead in his arms’, as the stage direction says. This event could not have been foreseen, especially as in the preceding lines there has been a sense of hope building for the first time in the play, but there is a sense of inevitability to it, and it is as a consequence of Edmund’s evil. I believe that the play would be incomplete and far less powerful if it did not contain this final hammer blow to hope. If Cordelia were to survive, it would contradict all that the play has been saying up to this point about the injustice and the futility of life; Lear’s death on its own would not have been enough, because there would have been with it a sense of fulfilment and justice, as he has been reconciled with Cordelia and would thus die a happy man. The tragedy is multiplied vastly by this denial of Lear’s contentment, and he consequently dies confused and wondering what all the pain and destruction and loss has been for. One of the greatest tragedies in the play, and there are many, is that Lear dies without finding an answer to his question, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” Cordelia does not in any way deserve the fate that she receives ? she is only in England because of her selfless love for her father ? but one could argue that she precipitated the tragedy through her egoism in refusing to take part in her father’s ‘love trial’. However, her suffering is completely disproportionate to the magnitude of her crime, which accentuates the tragedy even further.The death of Cordelia, the one glimmer of hope and purity in a play full of injustice and suffering, gives a deeper meaning to Edmund’s “The wheel has come full circle” (V.iii.174) ? it destroys any sense of progress that has been achieved through Cordelia’s transformation from rampant egoist to selfless altruist and thus any sense that anything has been learnt or gained from all the pain and death. If one wishes to find hope at the end of King Lear then it must lie in Edgar, for one must assume that he will take up the post of King. It could be argued that Edgar has experienced madness without being mad through adopting the role of Poor Tom, and has learnt what it is to be “unaccommodated man” before without having to pay the ultimate price for his discovery, and therefore can avoid making the mistakes that Lear made. However, I would contest the notion that Edgar has learnt anything much: the stupidity he shows at the beginning by his unquestioning acceptance of Edmund’s frankly not very clever trick is still present at the end. He effectively allows Cordelia’s death when he is again fooled by Edmund, the latter encouraging Edgar to waste time by saying “This speech of yours hath moved me, / And shall perchance do good. But speak you on; / You look as you had something more to say.” Edgar has four times as many lines as Edmund, and if he had not wasted so much time then perhaps there would have been time to save Cordelia. If we put these events down to Edgar’s innocence rather than downright stupidity they are perhaps more tragic, being akin to Iago’s deception of Othello, but nevertheless the fact remains that Edgar has not learnt from his original mistake. If he is so easily deceived, whether through innocence or stupidity, he will not make a very good ruler and the consequences of his being deceived will be far more serious when he is in power than when only affects himself. Furthermore, Edgar’s treatment of his father, in keeping him alive and prolonging his misery anonymously when all he need do to halt the old man’s suffering is to reveal his identity. The sole aim of this seems to be to punish Gloucester for his sins and make him repentant, which is gratuitous when Gloucester has already endured the pain of having his eyes plucked out and believing he has lost his son, not to mention that he has already admitted his mistakes, saying “I stumbled when I saw”. This, combined with Edgar’s highly disturbing speech to the fallen Edmund in which he asserts, “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where he [Gloucester] thee got / Cost him his eyes” suggests a disturbingly vigilante Puritanism which is in conflict with the ‘enlightened’ Lear’s speech in IV.vi where he asks why humans should be punished for adultery since “The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.” (IV.vi.111-112) I would therefore assert that far from being a promising candidate for King, he has a dangerous combination of naï¶¥té ¡nd disgust at the human condition, which suggests that the events of the play could well repeat themselves. As Macbeth says, “better be with the dead” (III.ii.19).This cyclical nature is another common feature of the tragedies: too often nobody has learnt anything from the events of the play and thus there is no reason why they should not repeat themselves. Any hope, as with Edgar in King Lear, must reside in the characters left alive at the end of the play, and specifically in the character left in charge. In Othello, we have already seen Cassio’s weakness when, despite knowing well that he “[has] very poor and unhappy brains for drinking”, he nevertheless allows Iago to get him drunk. In Hamlet, the future success of the nation depends upon Fortinbras, who has been absent from the proceedings and so has not been able to learn from the mistakes that have been made, and in Romeo and Juliet I don’t believe that the newfound reconciliation of the two families will last long, given the centuries of feuding beforehand, and so everything will return to how it was at the beginning of the play ? the social and religious practices that made it necessary for Romeo and Juliet to kill themselves to preserve their love have not been changed so nothing has been achieved. Thus the fundamental theme that is presented in tragedy is one of waste, both the waste of life and of potential. Cordelia, Desdemona and Ophelia are virtuous, pure and largely innocent casualties of the tragic machinations (Cordelia is more culpable than the other two, but is redeemed by sacrificing herself for the good of her father), while the tragic heroes themselves are a great waste because relatively minor character flaws negate their huge potential for good. The most devastating revelation, however, is that this waste is a consequence of human nature, and not only are the incidences recurring; they are inevitable.Bibliography1. Shakespeare’s Tragedies, ed. Laurence Lerner, Penguin Books, 19632. Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, Bertrand Evans, Oxford University Press, 1979
There is truth to Duncan’s line “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” for throughout Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not what they most often appear to be. Even Macbeth does not know the extent to which Lady Macbeth’s “heart is sorely charged” (p.163). To other characters in the play, Lady Macbeth is merely a ‘woman’- one who faints at the word ‘murder’ and cannot withstand the pressures a ‘man’ can. Macbeth is seen as a butcher, though in actuality he is “a coward in [his] own esteem” (p.41). Macbeth is a man and Lady Macbeth a woman, yet we see that just as “fair is foul, and foul is fair (p.7), Macbeth plays the role of a ‘woman’, as Lady Macbeth acts as a ‘man’.Lady Macbeth wants to replace every ounce of compassion and kindness with “direst cruelty”, hoping that the dismissal of all her gentle virtues will “stop [the] passage to remorse” (p.33). She calls upon the evil spirits to “unsex” her so that she can rid herself of all signs of femininity (p.33). Lady Macbeth commands the “murd’ring ministers” to “make thick [her] blood”, hoping that she will be strong enough to show no regret for the murders still to be committed (p.33). She banishes her effeminate qualities- examples of such ‘flaws’ in character being any mark of weakness, gentility or tenderness. She then asks for them to be replaced with “gall”, hatred and cruelty (p.33).There are discrepancies between what we first hear about Macbeth and what we first observe him to be. Previously, while fighting gallantly in battles for Scotland, Macbeth is regarded as a ‘man’- powerful, chivalrous, bold and authoritative. We envision a “brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)” fighting courageously and skillfully “unseaming” the enemy “from [his] nave to [his] chops” (p.9). However our perception of Macbeth, a man for whom “all’s too weak” (p.9), soon falter when we see his reaction to the Weïrd sisters. Macbeth is not as strong as we would expect him to be, and even Banquo asks Macbeth “why [he does] start and seem to fear” the witches and their predictions (p.17). Macbeth, like a child, merely stands idly by, as he later admits in a letter to his wife “[He]stood rapt in wonder” (p.31).Lady Macbeth recognizes her spouse’s shortcomings. Macbeth is “not without ambition,” but lacks the malevolence needed to achieve his immediate goal (p.31). He “is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (p.31) while Lady Macbeth almost immediately after saying this calls upon the agents of evil to “take [her] milk for gall.” (p.33) The early contrast clearly identifies Macbeth’s weaker, kinder nature and his wife’s primarily dominant ways.Lady Macduff criticizes her husband’s action of fleeing, “[leaving]his wife, [leaving] his babes, his mansion and his titles [unprotected]” (p.133). He who does this possesses “little wisdom,” she says, reinforcing the importance that a man should protect his holdings (p.133). Yet, in more than one situation, it is Lady Macbeth who rescues Macbeth. When Duncan’s murdered body is found, Macbeth in his nervousness “[does] kill [Duncan’s chamber guards]” then both apologetically and in weak efforts to justify this action, nonsensically rambles on “Repent me of my fury…Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.” (p.69) By pretending to faint, it is Lady Macbeth who cuts short Macbeth’s foolish little speech. She takes on a ‘man’s role’ when she saves Macbeth from plunging himself into a deeper state of suspiciousness.Lady Macbeth chides Macbeth along with ways she knows to be effective. When, an “afeard” Macbeth (p.41) tries to back down from committing Duncan’s murder, with pure savageness Lady Macbeth says that she would “dash the brains” of a loving, smiling baby while he “milks [her]”, if she had “sworn [just] as [Macbeth] [has sworn] to [commit Duncan’s murder]” (p.43). She outright tells Macbeth that even she, a woman, is more manly than he, for while “murder” is not to be “[repeated] in a woman’s ear” (p.67) it is she who takes on the responsibility for the deed.At the point when Macbeth evolves into the man that Lady Macbeth wanted him to be, she becomes the woman that she truly is. In Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth’s transition into ‘manhood’ as well as Lady Macbeth’s transition into ‘womanhood’ are apparent. Between Macbeth’s bouts of hallucinations, Lady Macbeth takes him aside and tries to comfort him. Usually, whereas she would provoke him into defending his manliness, this time she instead reverts back to the more womanly approach of nurturing and soothing her husband. Out of concern, she sincerely asks “Are you a man”, figuratively meaning ‘are you conscious now?’ to which Macbeth stubbornly retorts “Ay, and a bold one” (p.103). By the end of this scene, Lady Macbeth’s own guilty conscience and the burden of Macbeth “unmanned in folly” (p.105) seemed to have taken its toll on her “heart so white” (p.59), for the next time we see her, she is proclaimed mentally ill, while “devilish Macbeth” (p.147) has grown into an “abhorrèd tyrant” (p.183).Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth denounce certain human qualities that ultimately drive them towards two opposite, unhealthy extremes: What Shakespeare has defined to be stereotypically ‘male’ and ‘female’. “[We must] make our faces vizards to our hearts, disguising what they are” Macbeth advises Lady Macbeth, thinking this is what must be done in order to “gain [their] peace” (p.93). Yet, the suppression of Lady Macbeth’s guilt-ridden feelings, as she expresses while she sleepwalks, is ultimately what causes her to have a nervous breakdown and commit suicide. Lady Macbeth is constantly telling Macbeth to “think not” of what they have done. Eventually this causes him to disregard any feeling of remorse that he originally had: He admits that “[they] are yet young in [these evil] deed[s]” (p.109). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth try to hide their guiltiness behind a hardened, protective shell, whereas when Macduff is faced with the challenge of “Disputing [the loss of his family] like a man,” he says first that he “must feel it as a man” (p.155). If Lady Macbeth and Macbeth would have accepted a balance between ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ instead of consciously or unconsciously trying to choose one over the other, then perhaps they would not have lost to human nature and “fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf…” (p. 171)
A central theme of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the title character’s willingness to accept his fate. Macbeth’s attitude toward the prophecies of the witches varies depending on how much he likes the prediction. At first, he follows along with the prophecies that say he will become king, murdering his way to the position, but when they foretell his death and lack of heirs, he tries to stop the course of fate. His methods are bloody ones, and throughout the play he must face–or ignore–the morality of his actions. When Macbeth moves from working for fate to working against it, his feeling of guilt moves from great to small as he grows callous and willfully heads toward his damnation. Whether Macbeth has had any thoughts of killing Duncan before he hears the prophecy that he himself shall be king is unclear, but he certainly thinks this very soon after hearing the witches. Though he thinks about the murder often, he refuses to let himself acknowledge it. Speaking to Banquo, he shakes it off as “things forgotten,” and he wants the eye to “wink at the hand.” Macbeth both wants to fulfill and to avoid fate. The prophecies are enough to make him think about the deed, but not enough to make him do it. Even the very thought of killing Duncan “doth unfix [his] hair.” He is inherently opposed to the killing because it disrupts the natural order of things, as he is Duncan’s host and thegn, but that is not the only reason. Many of Macbeth’s fears of acting to achieve his fate stem from not moral compunctions but worries of what else his fate may bring. He is afraid of his own damnation for killing such a good king as Duncan, and Cawdor also serves as an example for his possible fate on earth. He knows that he cannot escape divine justice, and decides to keep from his fate as it was stated by the witches. He is stuck in a dilemma: he can try to buck his fate of becoming king or that of going to heaven. It is the action and not the consequence that he eventually favors, for Lady Macbeth convinces him. Lady Macbeth herself becomes an instrument of fate without much urging. As soon as she hears what the witches told her husband, she invokes “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts,” putting herself firmly in the area of the fate-serving witches. She dwells on their prophecy as “the all-hail hereafter,” considering what Macbeth thought could be neither good nor ill to be unequivocally good. She is not swayed by Macbeth’s multiple protestations, and answers all his doubts. She, by following fate, gets him to act. When he finally does decide to kill Duncan, Macbeth is instantly beset by guilt. He imagines that a bloody dagger is floating in the air before him directing him to Duncan’s room. He fears that the paving stones themselves will speak of his intentions, hears noises, and fears that he is lost to God. After the murder, he “had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in [his] throat.” He has done the deed, and at this point has lost his hope of salvation. Just after the murder, his state is mocked by the porter, who is drunk and fancies himself the keeper of hell’s gate. He constantly babbles about hell, and rather anachronistically mentions an equivocator, “who committed treason…yet could not equivocate to heaven.” This bit of comic relief is Macbeth’s situation in a nutshell. He has chosen his fate, carried by the evil witches. He is lost, and his guilt is really the fear of the consequences. The first consequence is his lack of sleep. Sleep is “innocent” and has a variety of healthful applications, such as a “balm of hurt minds,” which Macbeth could stand to have, but his separation from grace keeps him from peace of mind. Because he has “murdered sleep,” he must live in dread of the result. Sleep is also “death’s counterfeit” reminding Macbeth that he can not hope to have a calm death or afterlife. Lady Macbeth’s reaction to this is to scoff at his fear of the afterlife, considering the devil “painted” and the dead “but as pictures.” Her method of dealing with guilt is refusing to see it. But as for Macbeth, is not surprising that he begins an attempt to change the course of his life. His damnation is hanging over him, and he realizes that it is for nothing. He reminds himself that the witches said Banquo’s children would become kings, not his own. He therefore decides to fight against this earthly fate, but not his eventual one. What he calls a result of this decision will nicely double as a reason for it: he is “stepped in blood” too far to repent of his actions. To take another quote out of context, “blood will have blood.” Macbeth is caught in killings. His guilt is “the initiate fear that wants hard use” and will soon vanish once he has killed enough. He murders and tries to change his fate because to do so would blind him to his guilt. At this moment he freely chooses to try the impossible. Before, he had done all he could to make his fate come about; now, he thwarts it. Lady Macbeth’s reaction to her husband’s own switching of ideas toward fate is a reversal of her previous attitudes toward killing. Now that Macbeth is fighting fate, she fights him. Before, she suggested the murder and he gave excuses against it, but now he speaks of killing, brushes aside her objections, and even notices that she starts at the thought. As a crime against fate, the murder cannot sit well with one who, like Lady Macbeth, is devoted to vindicating fate. She has accepted fate and does not try to fight it, and so feels real fear and worry– not of hell, but of something greater, an attempt not only to destroy the natural order, or God’s law, as Duncan’s murder was, but the overruling laws of fate. Despite Macbeth’s efforts, what comes of the murder is not a blow to fate, but rather a vindication of it. Fleance, who will become king of Scotland, is not killed. Banquo, whom the witches said would never gain the throne, is. Macbeth’s vision of Banquo’s ghost reminds him of this. Upon seeing it, he is chiefly afraid that the other guests will see it too and know that he committed the crime. He is still afraid of retribution, but also about his success at changing his fate, and so decides to seek out the witches to tell him more about it. He is prepared “to know/By the worst means the worst.” He will consort with evil, taking him further along its path, merely to learn that it is futile to change his destiny. Indeed, he will at this point do anything to learn his fate. He commands the witches to tell it to him, even if they have to “let [the winds] fight against the churches,” the source of salvation, before they even refuse him. He wants to know the truth directly from the spirits, not the weyard sisters. He speaks directly to them, something not even the witches do. As he speaks, he tries to demand information of the spirits, which the witches warn him he cannot. He tries to learn more of his fate than is possible. When he demands information that is not in his favor, such as whether Banquo’s line will ever reign in Scotland, he immediately wishes he had never known it. The witches had told him the answer before, but this time he is faced with an image of Banquo’s descendants. The sight is so horrible to Macbeth that it “does sear [his] eyeballs.” He deals with the truth by pretending he never saw it. As Macbeth is now blind to his fate, so too is he blind to his guilt. He orders the murder of Macduff and his family, but can only kill his wife and son. Even the murder of Banquo, which occurred under similar circumstances, did its job to bring about fate, but this action is a futile attempt to change Macbeth’s destiny, and merely kills a child and woman of no threat to him. And unlike in the murders of Banquo and Duncan, Macbeth does not soliloquize about his guilt and fear. He has already committed himself to the path of changing his fate, and now is slowly realizing that this is impossible. At the beginning of Act V, Macbeth believes in his invulnerability as predicted in the prophecies so firmly and wildly that it borders on the intentionally self-deceiving. Yet as soon as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, the impossible condition that would give the lie to Macbeth’s immorality, he begins to despair. Fate mocks him by having the most unlikely things happen before his future would change. As it dawns on Macbeth that there is nothing he can do to change his fate, he refuses to fight any longer. Lady Macbeth’s death is what shocks (or rather, fails to shock) Macbeth into seeing the bleakness of his fate. Lady Macbeth, instrument of fate, firm believer in the prophecies, has recognized what is happening to her husband and killed herself. As Macbeth blinds himself to guilt, she opens her eyes to it. Yet the flavor of her guilt is not of fear–for if it was, she hardly would have damned herself further by committing suicide–but of simply being unable to live with blood on her hands. She cannot deal with the actions that she and Macbeth (really Macbeth–she faults herself for the murder of Duncan, which she urged but did not commit, and of Lady Macduff, which she opposed) have committed. Fate is no longer supporting Macbeth’s rise; it has abandoned him because of his failure to come to terms with his guilt. Lady Macbeth acknowledged her deeds and killed herself out of a guilty conscience, but Macbeth, at the very end, refuses to yield to Macduff. He may accept the futility of fighting his destiny, but he does it anyway. Macbeth’s decision to fight Macduff, by fighting against what he has resigned himself to, shows an acceptance of his own guilt. He is fighting against the completely unquestionable end that fate has predicted for him. A forest has moved and a man not born of woman has appeared–these are not events that Macbeth can consider coincidence. He must face his fate. When he shouts, “and damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’ Macbeth is already damned, there is nothing left for him to do but fight this fate, and in the fighting, damn himself again. He does not cry anything, but at the end of the fight he has both played out his destiny and gone to hell. Macbeth has turned his struggle against fate and fight against guilt into the same fight, and lost it. The struggle of Macbeth to gain his fate is one that he could not have lost. The one to fight it is one that he could not have won. His actions, while inconsequential on the level of the grand scheme of things, are tremendously important on the personal level of the fate of his own soul. That fate is not predetermined, and is the only thing that Macbeth really has control over. While chance may crown him, it is Macbeth who decides his own ultimate end.
In ‘Macbeth,’ the eponymous character fulfils his own overwhelming thirst for power by committing what was viewed to be worst possible crime: regicide. This initial murder of King Duncan acts as a starting point for Macbeth’s reign of terror, and results in him no longer being viewed as a courageous warrior, but instead a fraudulent tyrant, eventually leading to his death at the hands of Macduff. Shakespeare uses the crime, its initial aftermath and its long-term consequences to develop the main characters of the play, deepening the audience’s understanding primarily of Macbeth but also of Lady Macbeth and Banquo. According to the Medieval Scottish society in which the play is set, King Duncan is the representative of God on Earth; to kill Duncan is to betray the deity himself, resulting in damnation to an eternity in hell. Where Duncan represents the light of God, the Witches represent the powers of darkness. In this way, it is not solely the act itself which alienates Macbeth from God; in committing the murder, Macbeth is also fulfilling the prophecies of evil. Macbeth later actively seeks out the help of the Witches, certifying his kingship not as a rule by divine right, and not even simply as the rule of a counterfeit; it is tyranny of the darkest kind. Where regicide is essential to the tragedy’s plot, the true importance of the crime is in its effect: on those who commit it, and on the country in which it is committed. The play, after all, does not have an event as its title, but instead a character; the most remarkable feature of the play is not the murder, but the murderer. Through his foresight of the consequences of his own crime and his refusal to deceive himself concerning them, Macbeth is portrayed as an exceptional character. In this way, the evil deed Macbeth commits provides the audience with a deeper understanding of him. His soliloquy at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 7 is particularly valuable in illustrating the character’s deep inner conflict prior to the regicide. Macbeth deems the outrage of the deed graver still when considering King Duncan and his relationship with him; in his description of Duncan as having been ‘So clear in his great office’ Macbeth does not attempt to claim that the crime would be at all justified. However, it is not purely the shame and evil in the murder that Macbeth recognizes in this soliloquy – he also foresees its consequences. This insight is shown in the following words: “We jump the life to come…Bloody instruction, which, being taught, return To plague the inventor” The dark imagery evident in these lines, a feature which is particularly prominent in the soliloquy, further stresses the evil that regicide entails. The words ‘we jump the life to come’ show that Macbeth truly believes that he would be sacrificing his afterlife for the throne. However, he also clearly recognizes that a long reign is most certainly not ensured, with the words ‘Bloody instruction…return/ To plague the inventor’ highlighting his own insecurity as monarch were he to kill Duncan, with his own act simply encouraging others to commit regicide upon him. It is therefore made clear that Macbeth recognizes the full extent and breadth of the consequences of murdering Duncan, not only forfeiting his afterlife, but also the chance of a long, enjoyable and secure life on Earth. The honesty with which Macbeth approaches the murder, and the clarity with which he foresees its consequences allows the audience to understand Macbeth as a character of depth – a man not purely characterised by the crime he commits. Macbeth’s profound nature is even more marked when considering the attitude of his wife towards the same crime. Lady Macbeth is, by contrast, a far shallower character. This contrast is particularly evident in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, where Lady Macbeth concerns herself more with the action than its consequences. Her practicality at this time is portrayed in the following line, when the couple discuss the blood staining their hands: “A little water clears us of this deed” Lady Macbeth believes that in washing the blood from her hands, an act which will conceal from others the fact that they have committed an evil act, she has fully dealt with the matter; she recognizes the problem of others discovering their actions, but she does not consider her own conscience to be equally problematic. This is a naivety that Macbeth does not share – his own feelings concerning the blood on his hands are shown in the following words: “…No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red.” The concept of the blood on his hands turning entire seas red confirms that Macbeth does not talk solely of the tangible substance which coats him, but also to the immense guilt that is engulfing him. The word ‘multitudinous’ in particular stresses the magnitude of this guilt. The depth of the main character’s thoughts is stressed here, with his profound consideration of their immorality unable to inhibit his actions but present nonetheless. The directly contrasting lines of the two characters are effective in emphasising the fundamental differences between husband and wife; Macbeth considers the impact on the soul, whereas Lady Macbeth considers only the real and the physical. The vast difference in the characters after the crime really contributes to the audience’s understanding of the them, and in particular of the profoundness of the protagonist. However, it is not solely through their immediate attitude towards the murder that we form a deeper understanding of the principal characters in the play; Shakespeare further develops the characters throughout the aftermath of the crime, showing how they respond in the long-term to the consequences of their actions. These important changes in character are evident by the final Act of the play. Where Lady Macbeth is rendered helpless by guilt, Macbeth becomes further detached from the killing; he is the cold character that Lady Macbeth had tried and failed to become. The Lady Macbeth of Act 1, who wished to be filled ‘from the crown to the toe topfull/ Of direst cruelty’, seems a different character to the pathetic, broken woman of Act 5 who feverishly scrubs at the invisible blood on her hands. In contrast, by the final Act of the play, Macbeth has been brutalized and hardened by his tyrannical reign, failing to display any emotion at his own wife’s death; a reaction unthinkable of the Macbeth of Act 1. In this way, the crime allows the audience to understand the true potential of the characters, with Macbeth’s self-knowledge enabling him to correctly predict his demise, and a lack of the same characteristic in his wife causing her to underestimate her own conscience. Despite his own foresight, Macbeth proceeds to murder Duncan, knowingly damning himself to a life of guilt and an afterlife in hell. This indicates that the strongest characteristic of Macbeth is his ambition – an instrumental force which drives him to commit acts that his morality is not strong enough to prevent. Macbeth’s ambition and morality are very much central to the play, with the imbalance of the two crucial to his murdering Duncan. Again, Shakespeare’s uses other characters to help the audience understand this particular aspect of Macbeth – his fellow nobleman, Banquo, is placed in the same position as Macbeth, yet his own morality ensures that he does not go to the same lengths. The witches’ description of Banquo as ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater’ in Act 1 Scene 3 captures the distinction between the two men perfectly. Banquo is ‘Lesser than Macbeth’ in terms of the burning ambition that consumes Macbeth, but is far ‘greater’ in terms of the strength of his conscience. Duncan’s murder by Macbeth’s hand is made inevitable as a result of him having a much greater sense of ambition than Banquo, and a much weaker conscience than him. The strength of Banquo’s conscience means that he can keep his ambition in check, but only consciously. Banquo’s reaction to his own traitorous dreams is shown in the following words: “Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature Gives way to in repose!” In sleep, Banquo’s immoral, evil dreams mirror those of Macbeth; in the subconscious, with no conscience to control Banquo, the fundamental differences in the characters disappear. The use of the exclamation mark in this line stresses Banquo’s horror at his own ambition. Once more, regicide allows the audience further insight in to the play’s characters; the separate reactions of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo to the idea of the crime helps to reveal their strengths, their weaknesses and what truly drives them. To conclude, the regicide Macbeth commits is essential to the audience’s understanding of him in two principal ways: it reveals the overwhelming strength of his ambition in order to commit the crime, and it stresses his extraordinary insight regarding its consequences. Shakespeare also develops and explores other characters through their involvement and reaction to the crime, further deepening the audience’s understanding of them and of Macbeth through their contrast with him. By his very nature, Macbeth is doomed to commit evil, but his honesty and his foresight make it impossible to render him simply an evil man; the profound complexity of his character means that no matter its horror or gravity, he cannot be characterised by a single deed.
‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare is a play in which great contrasts lie between its main characters. ‘Macbeth’ is a tragic play, set in eleventh century Scotland, which explores the psychological and political effects of the eponymous character, who commits regicide in order to fulfil his own ambition and is eventually killed as a result of his tyrannical actions. Macbeth is a profound character and an exceptional one; in itself, his place at the heart of Shakespeare’s play ensures this. The strength of his nature, both positive and negative, is stressed through Shakespeare’s comparison of him with other key characters: primarily his co-commander, Banquo and his wife, Lady Macbeth. Where relation to Banquo reveals the weakness of his mortality, comparison with his own wife and his own reflection on his evil deeds renders him thoughtful and profound. From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare illustrates the contrast in the character and consciences of Macbeth and Banquo. This initial difference in reaction is very important, marking the beginning of the different paths on which the two characters proceed throughout rest of the play. It is a meeting with three witches which sparks a yearning for kingship in Macbeth, after they tell him that he will obtain the crown. Enraptured by the words they speak, Macbeth urges the prophesising witches to speak further: “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more”The strength of Macbeth’s ambition is shown from the very moments that the witches speak their prophecy in Act 1 Scene 3. The repetitive use of imperatives here, evident again when he demands of them, ‘Speak I charge you’, shows Macbeth’s huge interest in what the witches have to tell him. In direct contrast with Macbeth’s intense intrigue and his willing that ‘…they had stay’d’, Banquo immediately sees the danger in the witches’ words. On hearing that their predictions about Macbeth becoming Thane of Cawdor are true, Banquo’s caution is very much evident, stating:“What, can the devil speak true?”Through his description of the witches as ‘devils’, Banquo reveals his wariness; the use of the word ‘devil’ can only imply one thing: the evil of those who spoke the predictions, and in turn the evil that will result from them. Banquo knows that the witches and their prophecies can mean no good, and, even more importantly, is willing to recognise this as a reason to reject them, despite the tempting rewards that they also predicted for him. Banquo’s initial recognition of the evil in the witches’ prophecies allows him to detach himself from the overwhelming hold that they have over Macbeth. Macbeth’s enraptured state is emphasised in the following words, where Banquo comments on him:“Look how our partner’s rapt”These words serve two purposes: the fact that it is Banquo who speaks them stresses how he has managed to avoid the lure of the prophecies, and they also reiterate Macbeth’s own intense fascination. Banquo has managed to detach himself so much from the captivating nature of the witches’ predictions – the sense of possibility -, that he is actually able to comment upon the contrasting state of his companion.The contrast between the initial reactions of Macbeth and Banquo suggests that, despite their similar situations, there must be some fundamental difference in the characters of the two men. It is Macbeth’s incredibly strong ambition – shown through his immediate enthrallment by the witches’ words – that leads him to defy his King, his God and his own reason. It is not that Banquo lacks ambition, but that a principle strength of his character acts to counterbalance it; his morality. Macbeth and Banquo are in no way at either end of the moral spectrum; Banquo’s traitorous dreams indicate that he is not immune from the strength of temptation, nor is Macbeth lacking a conscience altogether. Macbeth’s conscience is revealed through his reaction to his own murderous thoughts, shown in the following lines:“Whose horrid image doth unfix my hairAnd make my seated heart knock at my ribs”The physicality of Shakespeare’s description here is incredibly vivid in portraying his horror, his self-disgust as a result of the regicidal thoughts he contemplates The imagery of his hair standing on end and his heart beating in his chest makes the existence of his conscience undeniable; he is clearly and extensively affected by the prospect of the evil deed which he will inevitably commit. The witches’ description of Banquo as ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater’ in Act 1 Scene 3 captures the distinction between the two men perfectly. Banquo is ‘Lesser than Macbeth’ in terms of the burning ambition that consumes Macbeth, but is far ‘greater’ in terms of the strength of his conscience. The inevitability of Duncan’s murder by Macbeth’s hand is the result of his having a much greater sense of ambition than Banquo, and a much weaker conscience than him.The strength of Banquo’s conscience means that he can keep his ambition in check, but only consciously. Banquo’s reaction to his traitorous dreams is shown in the following words:“Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that natureGives way to in repose!”In sleep, Banquo’s immoral, evil dreams mirror those of Macbeth; in the subconscious, with no conscience to control Banquo, the significant contrast between the characters is non-existent. The use of the exclamation mark in this line stresses Banquo’s horror at his own ambition. Through comparison with Banquo, and in examination of his flawed morality, Macbeth comes across as a weak character. However, it is only through his immoral acts that the audience can witness his true profoundness; as a thoughtful man, an insightful man and an honest man. As his only co-conspirator in the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth is the only character Macbeth can be truly compared with in terms of his attitude towards the deed. It is in this way that Shakespeare emphasises his true strength. Macbeth has a deepness of thought and foresight which his wife lacks, shown through his recognition of the dire consequences of the murder. Both before and after murdering Duncan, Macbeth recognises the sheer evil and immorality in what he is doing; at no point does he attempt to justify his actions. This recognition is apparent in the following words:“We jump the life to come…Bloody instruction, which, being taught, return To plague the inventor”As someone living in an intensely religious Medieval Scotland, Macbeth would believe in the afterlife, and be certain of the power of God. As God’s representative on Earth, the murder of the King is by definition an evil deed, and one that Macbeth – and the society around him – knows will forfeit his chances of reaching heaven, and will resign him to eternal damnation. Therefore, the very fact that Macbeth accepts and openly admits this frankly terrifying conclusion in the words ‘We jump the life to come’ is surely incredibly courageous. At no point does Macbeth lose sight of the pure ambition and selfishness that drives him, nor the pure evil that will surround his kingship; these lines capture his acceptance of the fact that he is doing nothing for his country, simply setting a bad example. The words ‘return/To plague the inventor’ highlight another of Macbeth’s realisations; his own regicide in order to take the crown is likely to lead to his own murder by another through the example he has set. Macbeth knows that he is not only destroying his own chances of eternal life, but also destroying his chances of a long life on Earth. In contrast to Macbeth’s recognition and consideration of what the deed will mean for him, Lady Macbeth focuses solely on its practicalities. This is most evident in the aftermath of the murder, when Macbeth returns from killing Duncan in a state of horror at his own actions. Lady Macbeth refuses, unlike her husband, to ponder deeply the immorality of the deed and attempts to dismiss it. Her attitude is shown in the following words, in relation to the blood which covers her and her husband’s hands:“A little water clears us of this deed”The sheer practicality of Lady Macbeth’s thinking here highlights her shallow nature, as well as her unwillingness to consider the deeper truths, the deeper implications of the killing. Through this line, Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as an incredibly superficial character, and it is through the contrast of Macbeth’s own comments regarding his bloody hands that he shows the depth to the main character. The following words capture his contrasting sentiments:“No; this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine”The concept of the blood of his hands turning entire seas red confirms that Macbeth does not talk solely of the tangible substance which coats him, but also to the immense guilt that is engulfing him. The word ‘multitudinous’ in particular stresses the magnitude of this guilt. The depth of the main character’s thoughts is stressed here, with his profound consideration of their immorality unable to inhibit his actions but present nonetheless. The directly contrasting lines of the two characters are effective in emphasising the fundamental differences between husband and wife; Macbeth considers the impact on the soul, whereas Lady Macbeth considers only the real and the physical. Perhaps the most telling proof that Macbeth is, in fact, an exceptional character is not his acceptance of his dire state, but his foresight of it. Despite the dread his thoughts invoke, Macbeth foresees only that which he genuinely believes will be the result of his deeds, and never allows falsities to cloud the sharpness of those facts – a rationality of thought which, in spite of the inexcusable act he commits, is truly admirable. “I dare do all that may become a man;Who dares do more is none”Macbeth’s personal perception of masculinity is a thought-provoking concept, and is also rather revealing; he does not believe a man is purely defined by his physical strength, but also – and perhaps more so – by his moral strength. The exposure of such a fundamental belief prior to his murdering Duncan thus implies that having murdered him, Macbeth will no longer be able to see himself as a true man – self-contempt which could only lead to ruin. This notion is realised throughout the rest of the play, in turn demonstrating the way in which Macbeth predicts his own demise. The context of Act 1 Scene 7, in which these lines are spoken, is particularly important here. Having recently fought courageously in battle, he has won ‘Golden opinions from all sorts of people’; it is apparent to Macbeth that his reputation as a loyal subject and a respectable man is at its peak, and that further yearning can only mean decline. It is in Macbeth’s ability to foretell his fate that the difference between husband and wife is most evident. Where his wife embraces the strength evil can bring, wishing that it would ‘unsex’ her, Macbeth resents that which his ambition leads him to; where his wife strives for stoicism and fails, Macbeth successfully predicts the destructive, corrosive repercussions. Lady Macbeth’s lack of self-knowledge and understanding is shown to the audience when she explains why she could not have killed Duncan personally:“…Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t”These words inform the audience that Lady Macbeth has failed; she has been unsuccessful in filling herself with ‘direst cruelty’, and some compassion still remains. Her perception of herself as a cold, heartless being has simply been incorrect – she admits her inability to commit the deed that she so vehemently urged her husband to do. This suggests a certain hypocrisy on her part – although Macbeth committed the murder of his own accord, Lady Macbeth’s belittling tactics of persuasion are rendered extraneous as a result of her own weakness, further revealing the deep flaws in her character. ‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare is a play which contains highly contrasting characters. It is this contrast which plays a key role in exploring and revealing the traits of the protagonist. Through the contrast with Banquo’s words and actions regarding the witches’ prophecies, the audience learns not only of Banquo’s strength of conscience, but also of the strength of Macbeth’s ambition. Consequently, the contrast within the play is essential to its comprehension; it is the imbalance between burning ambition and weak morality which leads Macbeth, and Scotland, to ruin. As a co-conspirator, Shakespeare uses the character of Lady Macbeth as a means of emphasising powerful aspects of her husband’s personality: his foresight, his honesty and his thoughtfulness. In this way, the audience is able to recognise Macbeth not only as a man who commits evil, but also as a man who is plagued by the evil he commits. It is only when he is reduced to a man who has done wrong that we can truly witness the traits that make him great.
The bulk of the drama in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is based in murder. Throughout the play, much of the dialogue and action have to do with plotting a homicide, carrying out the terrible deed, or being haunted by the guilt of taking another human life. With this bloody violence ever-present, it comes as no surprise that the issue of intimacy within the realm of Macbeth is not often considered. Intimacy is, however, a major force in the play as its presence and absence shape not only the relationship between Macbeth and his wife but the final direction of the plot. The key to both the plot’s movements and the Macbeths’ relationship, regardless of the twisted and manipulative turns it takes, is the intimacy and closeness of the two. It is their devoted relationship that holds them together amidst their anxiety of their murderous deeds and political power plays. Ultimately, their loss of closeness and confidence within one another signals the unraveling of their rise to power and their impending downfall. The initial rapport between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is characterized by a close affection for and a deep understanding of each other. This is seen in their interactions with one another early in the play. The first time any exchange occurs between the couple, it comes in the form of a letter written by Macbeth to his wife. Upon learning of his new title, Macbeth immediately imparts the information to his wife in a note, ending the letter with the following: “This I have thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee” (I.v.8-11). Macbeth’s choice to immediately update his wife on the news before he even returns home demonstrates his wife’s position as a trusted confidant. Macbeth communicates his desire to share any glory he may win with Lady Macbeth, showing that he cares deeply for his wife and is truly devoted to her. He also makes the selfless point that the greatness they are about to possess is promised for not just him, but for both of the “partners.” Lady Macbeth’s intimacy with her husband manifests in a different way, namely her deep knowledge of Macbeth’s personality. Once she gets the news of his promotion to Thane of Cawdor, Lady Macbeth instantly goes into an acute consideration of her husband’s character. She says: “Thou wouldst be great; / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, / That wouldst thou holily” (I.v.16-19). Here, Lady Macbeth demonstrates a keen knowledge not only of her husband’s desires, but his morals and the lengths he is willing to go to in order to obtain an end. She recognizes in the man a kindness not suited for the harsh game of political advancement and thus decides she must aid him in his rise to power by pouring her “spirits in thine ear” (I.v.24). Although Lady Macbeth’s intimacy is shown in a less direct way, both she and Macbeth possess an intimately close relationship with one another.As the play progresses, deeper and more complex elements of the Macbeths’ relationship are exposed. While the couple delves further into their plot, a certain dynamic develops that continues for quite some time throughout the play. Lady Macbeth has taken the initiative and has devised a plan in which Macbeth will secretly kill Duncan, putting him a step closer to being crowned king. When Macbeth expresses doubts about murdering his king (who just honored him, nonetheless), Lady Macbeth uses persuasion and manipulation to try to convince her husband to go forward with the plan. She compares his former resolve to drunken hope that is now hung-over and “green and pale.” She goes on to say that “From this time / Such I account thy love” (I.vii.37-39). After using her love as a manipulative tool, she asks if Macbeth would “live a coward in thine own esteem” (I.vii.42). Her strategic tirade seems to partly convince Macbeth as he moves from claiming he will not kill his king to entertaining the idea, asking what would happen if they failed. Her dominance fully asserted, Lady Macbeth responds: “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail” (I.vii.61). Macbeth then asks about the particulars of the plan, seemingly persuaded and set on following through with his wife’s idea. This negotiation illuminates a darker side of the intimacy between the couple where Lady Macbeth uses rhetoric and guilt to manipulate her husband into doing what she sees is most beneficial for them both. This set up is not, however, a one-way practice in coercion as Macbeth seems to need his wife’s strong hand to reinforce his more shameful ideas (such as murder for political gain). By this point in the play, the two have developed an emotionally symbiotic relationship where they both know Macbeth needs his wife’s overriding words to reinforce his thoughts and quell his fears.As the death toll mounts, an inconsistency in the Macbeths’ previously intimate relationship marks the downfall of the couple. Their practice of total confidence and sharing in the details of their lives ends here and begins the unraveling of their fates. When Macbeth becomes wary of Banquo and the Weird Sisters’ prophecy that his children will be kings, he sets up a plan to have the man and his son Fleance murdered. Macbeth chooses to withhold this plan from his wife when the two are talking in private. Macbeth says this to his once confidant: “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed/…Thou marvell’st at my words; but hold thee still” (III.ii.45-54). He tells his wife to not worry about what he has in store but to wait to see it come to fruition. This marks the first time in the play that Macbeth holds back any information from Lady Macbeth, proven in part by her surprised expression that Macbeth comments on. In past situations, Macbeth not only talked over every detail and trouble with Lady Macbeth, but he also used his wife as a kind of guide through the bloody mess, someone to calm his fears and reaffirm his actions. The fact that this type of intimacy is no longer a cornerstone of the Macbeths’ relationship coincides with further breakdowns in the two’s established dynamic. During a dinner where most of the nobles are assembled, Macbeth has a fit in which he sees the ghost of Banquo seated at the table with them. Lady Macbeth assumes her role as the one to dismiss her husband’s fears, saying: “This is the very painting of your fear: / This is the air-drawn dagger which you said / Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts, / Impostors to true fear” (III.iv.61-64). Her power over her husband seems to have lost its potency at this point as Macbeth continues in hysterics in front of his guests. Yelling for the ghost to leave him alone, Macbeth cries, “Avaunt! and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!” (III.iv.93). Macbeth seems to be too intensely affected by the murders he has caused for Lady Macbeth’s former ability to soothe her husband’s fears to work. Their closeness has been sacrificed and their lack of intimacy begins to manifest in distinct ways, such as Lady Macbeth’s failure to contain her husband’s break down. Further proof of the fissure in their closeness is the fact that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not together in another scene for the rest of the play. Later in the play, alone offstage, Lady Macbeth takes her own life. It is this fragmentation of their close relationship, their failure to communicate and inability to understand each other that marks the death of their intimacy and, ultimately, their actual deaths. In a story where blood is continuously spilled and few survive a murderous tyrant’s plot for power, it seems strange that intimacy should be an essential element. The closeness of man and wife is, however, an integral force in shaping the characters and the trajectory of the plot in Macbeth. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plan and carry out murders for political power, it is their intimate and close relationship that allows them initial success. The couple’s confidence in one another and their deep understanding of the other’s personality and psyche help them get through not only the guilt that stems from the murders but also the logistics of their plans. Their downfall only occurs when communication stops and the couple’s ability to help and understand each other is compromised. The loss of the Macbeths’ intimate relationship marks the unraveling of their political lives and, ultimately, their total demise.