Macbeth is a study of the human potential for evil; it illustrates—though not in a religious context—the Judeo-Christian concept of the Fall, humanity's loss of God's grace. We see the triumph of evil in a man with many good qualities. We are made aware that the potential for evil is frighteningly present in all of us and needs only the wrong circumstances and a relaxation of our desire for good. The good in Macbeth cries out poignantly through his feverish imagination, but his worldly ambition, the influence of Lady Macbeth (though she too has an inarticulate angel struggling against her own evil), and the instigation of a supernatural power all combine to crush his better nature.By the end of the play Macbeth has collapsed beneath the weight of his evil, and the desperate tyrant has so isolated himself from society—and from his own moral sensibility—that for him life seems "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing' (5.5.26-28).
Macbeth's despair strikes a responsive chord in modern audiences and readers partly because it resembles an existentialist response to the uncertainties of modern life. However, Shakespeare was not a philosopher, and in the 17th century existentialism did not exist. Nevertheless, he understood the potential for social and emotional collapse in the absence of morality. Macbeth and his lady chill us with their monstrous perversion of principles so obviously pertinent to people in all periods.
Shakespeare's depiction of evil in Macbeth has two aspects, natural and supernatural. The former is the portrait of the man, Macbeth; the latter is the representation of the supernatural world. Evil exists outside the protagonist in the world of black magic, represented most strikingly by the Witches. The appearance of these embodiments of the devil in 1.1 establishes the play's tone of mysterious evil. The Witches cause Macbeth to respond in ways that are 'Against the use of nature' (1.3.137), and his mind 'is smother'd in surmise, / And nothing is, but what is not' (1.3.141-142). When Macbeth finally recognizes that their predictions were not what they seemed, he denounces 'th'equivocation of the fiend, / That lies like truth' (5.5.43-44). He thus touches on their most important quality: the Witches deform the lives they interfere with because they disturb a necessary element of human society: its dependence on mutual trust.
Other emblems of the supernatural in Macbeth are the omens associated with the murder of Duncan. As he approaches the deed, Macbeth remarks on the ominous night: 'Nature seems dead, . . . Witchcraft celebrates . . .' (2.1.50-51). Moments later. Lady Macbeth hears an owl's hoot and the sound of crickets, both traditional omens of death. Lenox' account of the night's terrifying storm is full of ancient superstition told in explicit detail, with 'strange screams of death' (2.3.55), earthquakes, and dire prophesies by owls. In 2.4 the Old Man and Rosse intensify the motif when they discuss the day's strange darkness, the killing of a hawk by an owl, and the deadly combat among Duncan's horses. These are gross disruptions of nature that signify the presence of active evil.
The supernatural world is the most extreme example of power that is beyond human control, and it is therefore an apt symbol for the unpredictable forces of human motivation. This larger aspect of evil influences our impression of its more particular manifestation in the man Macbeth. Thus, the pervasive magic in the world of Macbeth supports our awareness that the behavior of the protagonist is, in human terms, unnatural. The portrayal of the evildoer, while convincing, is not psychological in intent; instead, it emphasizes the mystery of human behavior. The play presents possibilities and influences—Macbeth's political ambition, Lady Macbeth's urging, the Witches' bald temptation—but we still wonder why Macbeth does what he does. Macbeth is revolted by himself and his self-awareness makes his descent even more appalling; it also maintains our consciousness of the power of evil. He succumbs to temptation in an almost ritualistic way. He acknowledges each evil and then proceeds, prepared to accept 'deep damnation' (1.7.-20) from the time he first recognizes temptation until he is left with no alternative but death.
Macbeth's relation to evil is symbolic. Lady Macbeth, too, though she rejects her husband's scruples, is entirely aware that the proposed murder is evil. She avoids mentioning it too explicitly, and she cannot bring herself to do the deed herself. Finally, her anguished madness—presented in 5.1 and confirmed by her suicide—demonstrates her inability to absorb what she has helped unleash. Thus, she too presents the weakness of humanity in the face of evil. We recognize that they are susceptible to the mental ravages of guilt, and this keeps us from seeing either Macbeth or Lady Macbeth as simply a monstrous sociopath. In fact, much of the play's tension is created because neither of them can simply accept their evil callously. Thus, Macbeth is as much a victim of evil as its instrument, and he is doubly symbolic as a negator of the good in humanity.
Macbeth clearly sees that his evil is a perversion of human values, and the fact that he persists in the face of this awareness demonstrates a profound moral disorder. Indeed, disorder permeates his world. Disrupted sleep—commonly considered a symptom of guilt in Shakespeare's day and in our own—plagues both Macbeth and his wife. He hears a voice predict 'Macbeth shall sleep no more!' (2.2.42) as he commits the murder, and later he speaks of 'these terrible dreams that shake us nightly' (3.2.18-19). Lady Macbeth demonstrates the disorder physically in the sleep-walking scene (5.1). Macbeth even envies the murdered Duncan, for 'After life's fitful fever he sleeps well' (3.2.23).
Emotional disorder is particularly strongly presented in a repeated emphasis on sexual dysfunction. Lady Macbeth makes sex a weapon in her efforts to spur Macbeth's ambition. She casts aspersions on his sexuality when she equates it with his fear. 'Such I account thy love' (1.7.39), she says, and adds 'When you durst do it, then you were a man' (1.7.49). In 3.4 she uses the same technique when she urges him to conquer his fear of Banquo's Ghost. She calls the bloody-handed Macbeth 'My husband!' (2.2.13) when he has just killed the king. This—the only time she calls him 'husband'—suggests that she finds him sexually impressive in his gore. She also distorts her own gender in a startling fashion when she prays, 'Spirits . . . unsex me here' (1.5.40-41), and perversely elevates and then denies her maternal instincts in a vivid description of infanticide in 1.7.54-59. In 2.3.28-35 the Porter delivers a short description of sexual dysfunction from drink just at the moment when Duncan's murder, accomplished but not yet discovered, hangs over the play's world, emphasizing the motif. Macbeth's later withdrawal from his wife—he excludes her from his plans for Banquo and she takes no part in his story thereafter—suggests that their marriage has been destroyed, not strengthened, by their immersion in evil.
This motif, combined with the obvious pleasure that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth take in each other upon their first meeting in the play (1.5.54 ff.), has led most modern actors and directors to present their relationship as highly charged sexually, sometimes including sadomasochistic bouts of slapping and grappling. However, the text could also support the suggestion of an icy incapacity to express themselves sexually. In either light, sex is an issue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the normal marital relationship is pathologically distorted—one way or another—by the force of the evil to which they commit themselves.
The theme of unnatural disorder is reinforced throughout the play. When Macbeth first considers murdering the king, he acknowledges the evil of the deed with a vivid image of the disorder of the elements, 'Stars, hide your fires!' (1.4.50). His doubts are stimulated by his subconscious recognition that there is no possible way to integrate his desires with the proper order of things. Once Macbeth is fully committed to his evil course, this lack of integration is manifested in 3.4. He is horribly isolated at the banquet when only he sees Banquo's Ghost. His response, the decision to return to the Witches, illustrates nicely the widening difference between himself and other men.
The contrast is stressed in the comparison of Macbeth and Macduff, which becomes an important theme at this point in the play. In 3.6 Lenox and another Lord discuss MacdufTs opposition to Macbeth in terms of holiness versus evil. Perhaps most forceful are the parallel impressions of Macduff and Macbeth in grief. Macduffs response to news of the massacre of his family is a powerful demonstration of true humanity—he must 'feel it as a man' (4.3.221). Macbeth's reaction to Lady Macbeth's death—'Tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace . . .' (5.5.19-20)—is the wretched cry of a man so used to evil that he has lost his emotional reHexes. Macbeth's advanced disorder also manifests itself more violently when he alternates between despair and rage in Act 5. He now lacks the capacity for normal emotions.
The force that affects the man also affects the whole society in which he lives. The evil created by the Witches inspires mistrust throughout the world of the play. Significantly, after the Witches' 'overture' in 1.1 the play opens with the suppression of a treasonous rebellion. Duncan's 'absolute trust' (1.4.14) in the Thane of Cawdor was misplaced, and with broad irony, Shakespeare permits the king to award the defeated rebel's title to another man he should not trust. Though trust is still available to the characters, it is already misplaced. Once Duncan has been killed, doubt and confusion grow. This development is signaled by the Porter's allusions to treachery and to the doctrine of' equivocation', a justification for lying. Duncan's sons feel the world is faithless. They fear that they shall themselves be murdered, and they suspect everyone, particularly one who would be most reliable in a morally sound world, their own relative, Macbeth: '. . . the near in blood / The nearer bloody' (2.3.138-139).
Rosse describes vividly the overwhelming lack of trust that afflicts the land ruled by Macbeth: '. . . cruel are the times, when we are traitors, / And do not know ourselves . . . [and] know not what we fear, / But float upon a wild and violent sea' (4.2.18-21). The subsequent quasi-comical dialogue on treachery between Lady Macduff and her Son offers another slant on the same phenomenon, as does the deliberately false nature assumed by Malcolm to test Macduff, in 4.3. At the play's climax Macbeth discovers that he has been the victim of the 'equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth' (5.5.43-44), and thus reprises the Porter's motif. Only with Macbeth's defeat and death can honesty return. Siward is proud that his son died having 'paid his score' (5.9.18). When he hails Malcolm as the new king, Macduff wants to express what is in his mind; and Malcolm, in response, declares his wish to be 'even with' his supporters (5.9.28). The malaise generated by Macbeth's evil is dissolved, and 'the grace of Grace' (5.9.38) has returned to the world of the play.
As Malcolm begins to conduct the business of the state, we see that the motif of mistrust has been significant for the play's secondary theme, a political one. Throughout his career, Shakespeare was concerned with the influence on society of the moral quality of its leaders—this issue dominates the History Plays, for instance—and in Macbeth he applies his ideas to a tale of ancient Scotland. Like many of the histories, Macbeth begins and ends with a battle (one reported, one enacted), and the fate of the country is never ignored. The travails of Scotland while governed by the evil usurper are clearly presented, especially in the conversation among Malcolm, Macduff, and Rosse in 4.3. The fate of Scotland is a parallel development to Macbeth's descent into evil. This strengthens our awareness of his decline, but also stresses the important lesson that the immoral behavior of a society's leader is a dangerous disease, capable of producing widespread catastrophe.
The political aspect of the play also had a contemporary significance for Shakespeare's original audiences. The alliance of English and Scottish forces against Macbeth predicts the joining of the two countries under King James I in 1603, a recent event still prominent in the public eye, and James' rule is pointed to more directly in the apparition of future rulers presented in 4.1. Moreover, the enormity of regicide, combined with the Porter's allusions to the trial of Henry Garnet, will have brought forcibly to mind the recently exposed Gunpowder Plot, giving the play a thrilling relevance to the biggest political story in many years.
When he devised his drama of personal evil and public affairs, Shakespeare drew on the history of Scotland as presented in his source, Holinshed’s Chronicles, but much of his version varies from Holinshed for he was interested in drama, not history. These inaccuracies are of no consequence, for the play's bold art generates more power than could a dispassionate presentation of real facts. Macbeth, which contains some of Shakespeare's greatest poetry, offers one of literature's most striking accounts of an individual soul's descent into the darkness of evil, and its resulting isolation from society. Macbeth's rejection of morality, and its consequences—the loss of his soul and the disruption of the society that he influences—horrifies us. This is a drama that is as terrifying as the plots and wars of real usurpers and kings.
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