The Power of Selfishness
Literature overflows with references and symbols that correlate to teachings of many different subjects. Many authors design characters who, for some unknown reason, feel they cannot control their own selfish motives. The system of egoism defines itself as the “ethical system that places needs of oneself above and before those of others. Incorporated into this system, the more explicit views of the psychological egoist arise. The psychological egoist firmly believes that he holds no power over his selfish motives; humans innately strive to maintain what proves best for themselves over any other’s needs.
This situation becomes evident in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Macbeth allows his “vaulting ambition” to overpower his best judgment. While Macbeth’s questions his actions towards the beginning of the play, his true character surfaces as we see the transformation from a discerning war hero to a monstrous, uncontrollable murderer.
Because Shakespeare chooses to slowly reveal Macbeth’s faults, the reader initially falls into the perception of Macbeth’s nobility and control over his own desires.
The reader first meets Macbeth as he rides in from a successful battle in which he decimated Scotland’s foe led by Macdonwald. Like the reader, Macbeth’s peers also trust his courage in valor “for brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name-/ Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel, / Which smoked with bloody execution, / Like valor’s minion carved out his passage/ Till he faced the slave”(I.ii.16-20). Even the king resounds Macbeth as a “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman,” a gesture that portrays trickles of irony, as this valiant cousin would soon become his gruesome murderer.
These bold and proud portrayals of Macbeth are implemented to confuse the reader, to skew his belief in Macbeth’s ability to kill a friend, to hide Macbeth’s uncontrollable secret desire to assume the throne of Scotland. Shakespeare quickly reveals Macbeth’s ambition for the throne as he portrays an inquisitive Macbeth, careful not to promulgate his excitement for the three witches’ prophesy. Macbeth snaps to the hags, “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more! /… Speak I charge you” (I.iii.70-78). The quick reaction to the witches’ prophesy of his kingship flags the reader to notice Macbeth’s instantaneous and uncontrollable interest in the prospect of overthrowing Duncan. The uncontrollable urge for self-advancement over others’ well being closely follows the Catholic Social Teaching of the psychological egoist’s inextinguishable desire to trump the success of others and attain fame and glory.
Thinking through the requirements and consequences of his kingship, Macbeth slowly settles away from the idea of murdering the honorable Duncan, a withdrawal which sets the reader astray from the prospect of Macbeth’s desire to advance at any cost. As he arrives back to his castle, Lady Macbeth meets him with a rampant frenzy, questions him about what it will take to propel her to the position of queen, and implores him to consider the simple murder of Duncan to grasp her such happiness as well as seal their marriage’s happiness. Like Macbeth, Lady Macbeth keeps captive the same uncontrollable desire that defines a psychological egoist; however, she chooses to play into Macbeth’s fears and emotions to achieve her goal rather than following through herself. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth clearly know what they want and submit to any means necessary in order to achieve their goal.
They plan to greet Duncan as he arrives at Macbeth’s castle “[looking] like the time, [bearing] welcome in [their] eyes, / [their] hands, [their] tongue. Look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under it”(I.v.64-66). The now assured murder of Duncan slowly assimilates into a passionate war to achieve their desires at cost to any others, even Lady Macbeth’s desires trump those of her husband in her mind. The selfish mood throughout the play seems to give warning to not only selfish ideas and selfish motives, but to society’s ability as a whole to quell these undying desires, to allow these dangerous ideas to subside, and to realize the need for intervention long before one’s ambition grows to large to control. Egoism has been widely criticized as subverting attempts to live together as a whole, a criticism which further magnifies the potency of danger that Macbeth’s ambitions hold.
Macbeth’s ability to act upon his ambition remained unclear for a large part of the play; however, once he committed the initial murder of Duncan, Macbeth’s will to remove anything that threatened his success became clear; his willingness to kill further emboldened the correlation of him as an egoist. Quickly becoming suspicious of the beliefs of those around him, Macbeth moves to kill Banquo, his closest friend and ally until this point. As Banquo clearly dictates his unwillingness to support Macbeth in his nefarious deeds, Macbeth decides to call upon a group of murders to remove the threat of not only Banquo, but of his son Fleance, who was prophesized to be king. In fact, Macbeth believes “every minute of [Banquo’s] being thrusts/ Against [his] nearest of life” (III.i.118-119).
The small statement illuminates the potency of Macbeth’s insanity; his closest friends have now become his strongest enemies. Because of this transformation from friend to foe, Banquo becomes a victim of Macbeth’s ambition, becomes a symbol of pain caused by the incessant lust for power, becomes a rock from which those like Malcolm and MacDuff launch themselves from in order to overthrow the lost, poisoned mind of Macbeth. Macbeth, his mind racked from the ominous apparitions of his demise, soon learns of MacDuff’s flight to England, an action which he uses to justify the murder of many more innocent citizens who, in Macbeth’s eyes, threaten his very existence and success as king. Pacing in his castle, attempting to discern his best plan for retaliation against MacDuff, Macbeth reveals his desire to “seize upon Fife, give to the edge of the sword/ [MacDuff’s] wife, his babes, and all the unfortunate souls/ that trace him in his line” (IV.ii.151-152).
Resorting to rampant murders of noble kin, Macbeth cries out his unnecessary and undeserved desire to eliminate all of those who renounce his right to the throne. Macbeth abnegates all guilt in these times of passion and anger that frequently overpower his no longer existent common sense and discernment. Like the egoist, Macbeth chooses to not only act out of selfish measures, but proclaims that his actions are not of his control, but rather, a direct cause of his own inevitable drive towards success and power. Even as Malcolm misleads MacDuff about his own vices and shortfalls as a leader, MacDuff feels that the “vulture in [Malcolm] to devour so many/as the will to greatness dedicate themselves” (IV.iii.75-76) cannot exist as it does in Macbeth.
MacDuff’s belief that Macbeth defines the ultimate evil as a leader as well as his inclusion of Macbeth’s inexorable will to greatness further corroborates the correlation between a stereotypical psychological egoist and Macbeth. MacDuff describes Macbeth’s inextinguishable will as the catalyst for Scotland’s demise as well as an innate feature that Macbeth contains; Macbeth could never abdicate the throne without force due to his great desire to achieve success for only himself. Eventually, Macbeth realizes his crimes and missteps as king, but still refuses to step away from the unnecessary dismantlement of families who pose a threat to his power.
Upon killing young Siward, Macbeth rejoices that no man of woman born can touch him; Siward, who fathered young Siward, similarly rejoices his son’s death fighting the ultimate tyrant of their age. As the tyrant Macbeth nears his end, MacDuff enters the castle as the one “of all men else” who Macbeth has avoided. Knowing his death to arrive by MacDuff’s sword, Macbeth fights on with “a soul too much charged/ with blood of [MacDuff] already.” (V.viii.4-5) His bold disregard for his own life reveals the misconception and ignorance he holds of his own life; Macbeth once again allows himself to be consumed with passion, passion which drives him to his inevitable demise.
Society today regards Macbeth as a product of fear and paranoia coupled with a desire for power that is so strong that any means to achieve that power would be taken in order to attain that goal. We see many like Macbeth even today. Like Macbeth, Richard Nixon was a wildly popular figure in United States politics, winning his elections with over 60% of the popular vote. Seeing his own success and desiring so much more, he allowed his paranoia to take hold of him and cheated his way to a second term by bugging the Democratic offices. Many historians believe that this move proved to be completely unnecessary; his popularity already had been sealed with the people. Having followed through with his quest for power, his obsession caused him to inevitably resign from office.
Macbeth portrayed many similar characteristics as Richard Nixon. His popularity greatly stood above his peers around him, however; he chooses to instead tear apart a kingdom for his success, a success that likely would have brought him to power anyways. Shakespeare along with history teaches us the power ambition holds over us, the importance of containing that ambition, only searching for what we can do to improve ourselves without harming others. The egoist commonly addresses the criticisms regarding his lust for power as shallow and full of fear, much like Macbeth addresses those who attempt to quell his vaulting ambition. The quest for power controls so many in the world today, but it eventually leads these people to failure much like Macbeth’s, failure much like Nixon’s, failure to keep hold of power, failure to sustain a valuable life.
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