Looking in detail at the character of Macbeth, analyse his descent from ‘noble Macbeth’ to ‘dead butcher’.
In your answer you should consider:
* The character/theme in question
* Shakespeare’s use of language, imagery and other dramatic techniques
* Social, cultural and historical context
* Personal response
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. The play presents Macbeth as the epitome of a megalomaniac and his dramatic descent from ‘noble Macbeth’ to ‘dead butcher’ may also suggest that the supernatural cannot be trusted and any attempt to change society’s natural order can have disastrous consequences. This message ties in with the general Jacobean belief that witches were associated with evil and the king had divine power given by God to rule. This is particularly significant as the Gunpowder Plot had failed to kill James I and Shakespeare may be using the play to warn any ambitious plotters that regicide was against nature and the traitor,like Macbeth, will forever suffer for his crime. It also comments on the general belief that females were the lesser of the two sexes by portraying the manipulative and domineering side of women through the character of Lady Macbeth, who plays an influential part in all of Macbeth’s deeds.
The play introduces Macbeth as a brave and noble warrior, the ultimate example of a soldier. The nobles speak of him as a fearless fighter, using animal and mythological imagery along with similes and metaphors such as ‘As sparrows, eagles; or the hare, the lion’ and ‘…the Bellona’s bridegroom’ to describe him. These descriptions make him seem almost god-like and imply we must expect extraordinary things from him. However as his strength and bravery are praised, his ambition and ruthlessness is also exposed. These qualities serve Macbeth well whilst he remains a loyal and honourable subject, but once his morals become corrupted, they form the basis of what is needed to create a much feared tyrant. The ambition is turned into a burning desire whilst the ruthlessness simply turns to cruelty as he cares less and less about innocent bloodshed.
The first time we hear Macbeth’s name is when the witches predict his arrival. This immediately makes the audience suspicious of him and when Macbeth speaks his first words of the play, ‘So foul and fair a day…’, his language echoes the witches’ and instantly tarnishes his image to the audience as he is aligned with what was commonly seen as evil. He is highly exalted by the people surrounding him but when the witches speak to him, the seed of ambition is immediately triggered to grow within him.
This can be seen as the beginning of his downfall as his desire for power begins to consume him. By juxtaposing his reaction to the witches to Banquo’s, Shakespeare creates a foil for and the first sign of Macbeth’s possible treachery is exposed. As the witches’ prophecies are fulfilled, Macbeth progresses to trust them more and more, even returning to them to seek advice. Initially he is wary of his opponents, but their prophecies such as ‘…none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth’ causes him to become over-confident and arrogant, which in turn leads to his final defeat at the hands of Macduff.
The witches are mainly responsible for starting the growth of ambition within Macbeth, but Lady Macbeth can be seen as the main driving force for his power hungry desire. We see how Macbeth is subject to her control from the very beginning as he is referred to as ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’. This immediately implies that she plays the dominant role within their relationship and is able to control him. Shakespeare emphasizes their close bond by often putting their dialogues together to form the same iambic pentameter.
By using words such as ‘…then you were a man’, Lady Macbeth constantly taunts him and challenges his masculinity, subsequently manipulating his actions and causing him to do things he did not originally plan. Macbeth was very reluctant to act against Duncan and showed regret after the deed, but she not only persuades him to agree to the crime in the first place, then orders him to think nothing of it. However she cannot be the only reason for all of Macbeth’s deeds, as the killing of Duncan is the only one she plays a direct role in. All the murders to follow were according to Macbeth’s own free will and she had little to do with them.
Another contributing factor for Macbeth’s crimes is he and Lady Macbeth’s use of disguise and equivocation. Words such as ‘…make our faces vizards to our hearts, Disguising what they are’ show Macbeth’s insincerity and the use of the collective pronoun ‘our’ show how he and Lady Macbeth are together against the rest of the world. The theme of disguise is further reinforced by the liberal use of dramatic irony throughout the play. Macbeth and his wife are forever hiding behind a mask, and lines such as ‘…look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t’ have a sinister and ominous tone which reiterates how dangerous they are but also how other characters are unaware of their evil plots. Macbeth’s internal monologues suggest his true thoughts, and the change from ‘…chance may crown me, Without my stir’ at the beginning to ‘…give to th’edge o’th’sword…all unfortunate souls’ near the end symbolise how his attitude to murder is transformed from reluctant to somewhat eager.
Once the first murder is complete, paranoia sets in on Macbeth, eating away at his sanity and even humanity as his deeds become increasingly treacherous. He shows signs of mental deterioration even before killing Duncan when he says ‘is this a dagger I see before me’, showing that he is hallucinating and his mental state is not what it should be. He is ever affected with insomnia after he hears a voice saying ‘…Macbeth shall sleep no more’ and this increases his paranoia. He becomes wary even of Banquo and orders for him and his son to be murdered. The fear and tension felt by him is presented in the many caesural pauses in his some of his speeches, such as ‘Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!’.
The short abrupt sentences suggest the panic he is feeling and imply that his mind is slowly becoming more and more plagued with his crimes. Shakespeare deliberately makes all his victims innocent of committing anything against him, thus creating pathos for them and at the same time highlighting how he is viewing everything as a threat and killing is becoming the only way he can feel safe. This makes him more brutal and inhumane as his actions turn from regicide to killing his best friend, and then to infanticide. His reactions to killing also change, from the regretful tone in ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!’ to the longing tone in ‘…in his death were perfect’, we can see how he is feeling less guilt and gaining more satisfaction from his crimes.
Ultimately Macbeth’s tragic descent is not only due to himself, but instead when the many catalysts like the witches and his own wife combine to encourage his thirst for power, his own ambition becomes his fatal flaw and leads to his downfall. What began as one murder simply to gain royalty quickly gets out of hand as murder becomes a necessity for him to feel safe and I believe his transformation from ‘noble Macbeth’ to ‘dead butcher’ though unfortunate, was inevitable.