The Theme Of Power And Vaulting Ambition In Macbeth

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

One of the most profound yet disturbing themes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth involves the power that exerts over an individual who has ascended to a role of authority. Under the influence of unchecked power, Macbeth takes actions that result in serious and devastating consequences for himself and for others around him. Once Macbeth has committed the unforgivable act of killing King Duncan, his visions gets blurred and he uses his newfound power for wrong things. As the play progresses, he finds it increasingly difficult to restrain himself from resorting to the perverted use of power, which leads to his demise in character. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, magnifies and sharply contrasts the struggle between the desire for personal prominence and the submission to a higher power; ultimately revealing the psychological and spiritual costs to those whose ambition is unchecked.

As the play begins, we see Macbeth in his original role, an honorable warrior filled with loyalty which was ordained by not only God, but by King Duncan as well. When Macbeth remained loyal to his role, he was regarded a hero, the epitome of any man. “For brave Macbeth-well he deserves that name-/ Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish steel… unseamed him from the nave to th’ chaps/ And fixed his head upon our battlements”. When the Captain says “he deserves that name”, it is because Macbeth means “son of life” and in his victory for Scotland, he has given new life to the people of Scotland and fulfilled his God given role. The description of Macbeth’s actions of “unseaming him from the nave to the chap”, indicates not only Macbeth’s bravery and honor as he faces the opponent head on, but his manliness as well. As exhibited, Macbeth is content with his role as a warrior and loyal servant to the crown and to God. However, this all changes when Macbeth hears the witches’ prophecy; “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter”. After the prophecy was announced to him, Macbeth begins to seek power in dishonorable ways. This is evident in the scene where he is talking to himself and says, “Stars hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires/the eye wink at the hand”. Macbeth commands the stars to “hide” and to “let not light see”, which stipulates that his mentality and character are beginning to change and will no longer work in the light but in the darkness that conceals him. The word choice, “fires” and “light” completely contrast with “black” and “deep”, portraying Macbeth’s internal conflict between good and evil. Furthermore, the usage of the word “deep” specifically connotes that his black desires are deep rooted, highlighting the depth of his struggle and the instability that results from it. In conclusion, the conflict between “eye” and “hand” foreshadows what everyone perceives and what Macbeth actually does.

As the play progresses, Macbeth continues to lose his honor when he murders Duncan. In a specific act of the play, he states “Is this a dagger which I see before me,/ The handle toward my hand?”. It is plausible to assert from the quote that the dagger is a symbol of secrecy, deception, and a culmination of Macbeth’s violent intentions towards King Duncan. In further analysis, compared to other weapons, daggers require one to get much closer to their victim, which parallels Macbeth’s seemingly trusting and close relationship to the king. Furthermore, daggers are small, and can easily be hidden, just as Macbeth hides his dark desires and intention become king. Macbeth’s rise to power can be compared to Tarquin’s rule as they both are tyrants and expressed their power through the harm of innocents which is evident in the following quote: “…Alrumed by his sentinel, the wolf,/Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,/With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design/Moves like a ghost”. The allusion to “tarquin”, who was a Roman king and tyrannical ruler who was eventually overthrown. He raped Lucrece, who can be compared to Duncan due to their virtue. Once Macbeth finally committed his murderous act, all nature that night went against itself. “On Tuesday last, A falcon tow’ring in her pride of place was by a mousing owl haked at and killed”. The pathetic fallacy of “falcon” which is representative of a king is a bird and kills other birds however; the falcon is killed by the owl who is only supposed to kill mice. This is unnatural and is not something that would normally happen, which depicts the abnormal way in which Macbeth came into power. The horse scene further portrays the irregularity of the change in power, “And Duncan’s horses, a thing most strange and certain, beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, contending ‘gainst obedience as they would make war with mankind. /‘Tis said, they eat each other”. The phrase “turned wild in nature” symbolizes the things that are supposed to be in Duncan’s control have now turned loose and there is mayhem because of that. While the phrase “contending ‘gainst obedience” foreshadows the thanes, who are supposed to be under Duncan’s control, will turn against one another because of the unnatural rule of Macbeth.

As Macbeth claims the power he believes is his, he slowly realizes that his actions have a deeper psychological impact then he would have thought. According to psychologist Leon Festinger’ s theory of cognitive dissonance, people have a tendency to reduce the discomfort (dissonance) we feel when two of our thoughts (cognitions) are inconsistent. In Macbeth’s case, his attitude and actions were inconsistent so he changed his attitude to match his actions. At first Macbeth is hesitant to complete such heinous action however, his attitude is changed by Lady Macbeth when she says, “When you durst do it, then you were a man./ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man”. Lady Macbeth’s undermining of Macbeth’s manhood spiraled him into a state of justification for the atrocious acts that he would commit. Although Macbeth does try to align his thoughts with his actions, he ultimately cannot as seen when he says, “Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,/Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care”. The “ravelled sleeve of care” refers to the way “innocent” sleep soothes one’s worries. The figurative language emphasizes the gravity of Macbeth’s actions with the utilization of a reassuring tone while describing sleep, when in reality he is truly disturbed. The battle of attitudes and behavior continues when Macbeth says, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red”. Neptune is the Roman god who rules all of the oceans. Macbeth’s guilt over killing Duncan is reflected in the blood on his hands, which he thinks not even all of Neptune’s oceans could cleanse. He is so bloody that if he were to try and wash his hands in the ocean, the ocean would turn red. The quote once again represents the conflicts between his actions and his thoughts. Macbeth later again tries to make his thoughts and actions match one another after he kills Banquo, however it is evident that he cannot when he says, “Thou canst not say I did it; never shake/ thy gory locks at me!”. The scene reveals that although Macbeth has tried his hardest to bury the guilt, it still follows him everywhere. Macbeth’s final attempt to align his thoughts with his behavior is when he is preparing for Malcom and McDuff, while conversing with Seyton,

Macbeth: “Give me my armour”

Seyton: ‘Tis not needed yet”

Macbeth: “I’ll put it on;” 

The conversation between the two men depicts the battle going on inside Macbeth’s head. Even though he is advised by Seyton that his armor isn’t needed his thoughts are those of fear and he is trying to shadow that by overcompensating with his armor that is supposed to harden him and protect him but instead, represents his weakness. The weakness that stems from not only his psychological damage but his spiritual one as well.

Macbeth’s heinous crimes plague him mentally and spiritually. There are many times where Macbeth realizes that regardless of what he does, the stain of blood will remain on his hands, cementing his fate and his eternal separation from God. “Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse/ the curtained sleep. / Witchcraft celebrates/Pale Hecate’s offerings, and withered murder…”. Shakespeare’s alludes to “Pale Hecate”, which refers to the Greek goddess of magic, Hecate. The call to Hecate illustrates Macbeth’s approach to chaos as he becomes more and more like the witches, going against the natural order. “I am in blood/ stepped in so far that should I wade no more, /returning were as tedious as go o’er’. When Macbeth says these lines, the metaphor of blood represents his own guilt in knowing that he has sealed his fate. He understands that trying to change his destiny after all his unforgivable actions is pointless. Furthermore, the quote is an echo of Macbeth’s earlier lines that say, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine, /Making the green one red”. Moreover, the scene that follows Duncan’s murder further depicts Macbeth’s separation from God as the porter says, “Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key./Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’the’name of Beezlebub?”. Beelzebub is a name derived from a Philistine god, later adopted by some Abrahamic religions as a major demon. The name Beelzebub is associated with the Canaanite god Baal. In theological sources, predominantly Christian, Beelzebub is sometimes another name for the devil, similar to Satan. He is known in demonology as one of the seven princes of Hell. Beelzebub is capable of flysy, and is referred to as the ‘Lord of the Flyers’ or the ‘Lord of the Flies’. In analysis, the reference to Beezlebub from the Porter, emphasizes the evil act that Macbeth had done, and how as a result, he is now closer to Satan than he is to God.

Through Shakespeare’s Macbeth it is evident that for one to live a happy and fulfilled life that one must understand the role that was created for you and abide by the rules that was created for that role. And even if said person has ambition one must not let the desire blind one’s self as it not only leads to the moral corruption of one’s soul but also the complete separation from God.         


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