Commentary by Maria Rioux
In Macbeth, there are no subplots, nothing to take our attention away from the the plotting of Macbeth and his wife, and it’s developing ugliness. All the action of the play follows upon a single decision by Macbeth to act on his ambition.
The fact that Duncan is a wise, old, just and generous king makes Macbeth’s betrayal all the more repugnant. He admits to a double betrayal: one as a soldier of the king, and one as a host to his guest.
(Porter’s reference to the Gunpowder Plot: Jesuits tried to blow up the king, his heir, and both houses of Parliament by placing gunpowder under the Parliament building.)
If we look to Scottish history, what Macbeth did initially was not so very grievous nor uncommon. The Scot’s did not cling to a sort of Divine right of kings, nor follow blood succession that closely.
The evil humans commit is reflected in the weather and in the behavior of animals. Macbeth is seduced by prophecy and by Lady Macbeth’s and his own greed for power, as well as his love for Lady Macbeth and his desire to earn her love and respect. His initial murder might be viewed by Scots as somewhat expected, and surely, no one in the play seems either deceived nor surprised. However, this one act leads to other murders, culminating in the murder of a woman and her children as they sleep, the murder of the innocent.
In both the plot and the language, Shakespeare explores the influence of fate and free will. The Witches could be vehicles of fate, or they could be Macbeth’s ambition personified. In support of this, Hecate reprimands the witches for their part in fanning the flames of Macbeth’s ambition as though he could, indeed, choose otherwise. Macbeth seems to act, and then to sit back and resign himself to the consequence of his chosen actions as if he had no will in the matter.
Macbeth is the tragic hero, for he was not always evil. He begins the play good and noble, for which he is rewarded with the title “thane of Cawdor.” He struggles against his ambition and ignoble thoughts, but is rather easily overcome by his wife’s ambition and scorn.
“No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive our bosom
interest. Go pronounce his present death, and with his former title
Ironically, the granting of this title gives Macbeth the idea to kill the king. Macbeth will go far beyond deceiving Duncan’s “bosom interest.”
Macbeth is astounded when he is addressed as “thane of Cawdor,” but Banquo warns him that evil sometimes tells small truths to trick people into believing larger lies. Macbeth is confused, but the thought that he might soon rule Scotland begins to erode his noble nature. Lady Macbeth knows her husband’s nature all too well and braces herself to undermine the good in him. She fears he is all to noble to do the ugly things that ‘must’ be done. One has to chuckle a bit at her prayer to unsex herself. She doesn’t seem to require a whole lot of pushing to quiet any tender and gentle tendencies she might have. It is important to add that this is true only in the abstract. Once the deed is done, and her hands are wet with Duncan’s blood, she begins her decent into madness. Having denied her nature, her mind begins to acquire an unnatural sickness.
Banquo is right: the witches tell only part of the truth, and then only that part which disguises the evil required for these events to come to pass. Macbeth argues that since the witches’ predictions have begun to be true, how can the witches be evil? If they were evil, they would lie. This ignores the evil of equivocation – when partial truths serve a greater lie. Banquo warns against equivocation: “oftentimes, to win us to our harm the instruments of darkness tell us truths”. Shakespeare establishes Banquo as heroic and wise, a faithful servant of the king, of Scotland, and a fit father for future kings.
The fact that the witches lie, or at least, shield the truth, suggests that Macbeth is not ruled by fate. He has a choice, which they hope to influence, but they cannot command his actions or they would not bother to hide the reality from him. He must be at least able to struggle against fate.
“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir.”
It’s as if Macbeth is simply resigning himself to fate. On the other hand, we see that he does not. He takes matters into his own hands, not waiting for the fates to have their will. Perhaps he feels that any action is justified because the fates have sort of given him the nod: this is what he is meant to be, hence, meant to do.
Lady Macbeth seems to be more vicious than her husband. She readily adjusts to the evil plans, seeking only their personal good. (One might ask if personal good is ever distinct from common good. )
Macbeth invites Banquo to a feast, already planning his demise.
This is the first evil deed Macbeth plans without his wife’s knowledge and strength. He admits to guilt and fear, but uses these feelings to justify further evil deeds. Since Macbeth here attempts to outsmart the witches’ predictions by
killing Banquo and Fleance, a strong argument can be made that even Macbeth knows he has chosen an evil path, not just had one dictated to him by Fate. He begins as a hero who requires convincing from his wife. He proceeds from regicide to betrayal of a friend and his child. Ultimately, he murders a
woman and her children.
Macbeth’s moral decay is revealed when he says:
“For now I am bent to know, by the worst means, the worst. For mine own good all causes shall give way. I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, which must be acted ere they may be scann’d”
A deeply troubled Lady Macbeth attempts to wash blood off her hands; she is not as immune to conscience as she had first appeared. She displays the same fears of blood and starts at knockings. We cannot help but see the parallel between this Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself after the murder of the king. At that time, Lady Macbeth showed her nerves to be almost of steel, and her husband felt he did not know her.The Macbeth’s have reversed roles.
“I begin to be weary of the sun.” This is Macbeth, having heard the forest has risen up against him and his wife is dead. While their roles were reversed, he relies on her to support his evil deeds. He recognizes the end is near and begins to despair. Macbeth achieved what he wanted, the ultimate power of being king, but because he accomplished his goals through evil, he is left with no allies or loyalty.
Macbeth is the tragic hero who wrestles with his weaknesses and falls. He is supposed to rise to a higher level than from whence he fell, but I wasn’t able to find that he did.
Deceit in Macbeth is used to further the schemes of the tragic hero. Deceit in the comedies was used to aid others, whether consciously or unconsciously.