Assess the significance of the following factors in the downfall of Macbeth; the supernatural, Lady Macbeth, and his own ambition. Do you consider him to be a hero or a villain?
In this essay I will be discussing and assessing the significance of the three factors which lead to Macbeth’s downfall; the supernatural (the witches), Lady Macbeth and his own ambitions.
Macbeth is the central character and therefore played a large part in the play, hence the title, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”. The whole play is dominated by the great changes which take place in his character. The play has a tight, compact structure and everything centres on Macbeth, most of the other characters are not developed to any great degree and often serve merely to offset the main character. Macbeth holds the largest part in the play and his character knows the difference between right and wrong. Macbeth is ambitious, but he enjoys the good compliments which the King and other people have of him, which does hold him back.
At the beginning Macbeth is a successful general and also the Thane of Glamis who is described as noble and valiant. “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman”. Macbeth is well respected and looked up to after he triumphed in battle against the Norwegians and risked his life for Scotland, even though they were threatened by Norway who had the advantage of a stronger army. Macbeth is looked upon as the hero of his country and as a role model to others. King Duncan is grateful and rewards Macbeth by making him the Thane of Cawdor. “And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor”. The loyalty and bravery of Macbeth and Banquo is contrasted with the treason and cowardice of the Thane of Cawdor, who betrayed the king and joined the enemy.
The Captain says that Macbeth and Banquo were savage in battle. Macbeth’s savagery is praised because it has preserved the rightful king. “… brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name”. “Dismay’d not this our captains, Macbeth and Banquo”. At this point in the play, Macbeth holds a very good reputation. Act 1 Scene 2 gives a glowing picture of Macbeth and Banquo as loyal and brave. Macbeth and Banquo have triumphed over two armies: the rebel Macdonwald and the Norwegian King, Sweno, and traitor Cawdor. There are images used to glorify Macbeth :-‘Bellona’s bridegroom’ means ‘husband of the goddess of war’, suggesting that Macbeth is worthy to be considered a God of War.
There are three factors, which lead to the downfall of Macbeth. These are; the supernatural, Lady Macbeth and his own ambitions.
The supernatural is introduced to the play right at the start. The play starts with three witches. They are called by their familiar spirits (supernatural beings) and they mumble and chant mysteriously. “Paddock calls anon: Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air”. This sets the scene of horror and mystery and this is the underlying mood of the play throughout. There is also thunder and lightening Shakespeare has the witches speaking in a rhythmic way, which makes it sound like incantation. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightening or in rain?” We learn quickly that they can see in the future. They speak mysteriously of things, which do not seem to make much sense to us. “Wher the place? Upon the heath. There to meet with Macbeth”
The witches help to chart the changes that occur in Macbeth’s character. When the witches make their predictions, “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis…. hail to thee Thane of Cawdor….. all hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter”, they have a powerful effect on Macbeth. Banquo picks this up and asks him if he fears their words. Banquo cannot see why Macbeth should be afraid, when he is promised only good things. What the witches say, develop ideas in Macbeth’s head, especially that he ‘shalt be king hereafter’. Macbeth is tempted by their predictions because they echo his own thoughts, perhaps in his mind he thinks about being king and owning power and having control one day. Basically the witches play upon his weakness, as does his wife.
In Act 1 Scene 5 Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth, telling her about the meeting with the witches and Duncan’s forthcoming visit. He chooses to report to her all, pointing towards being king. “I have learnt by the perfectest report they have in them more than mortal knowledge”, meaning that he is quite certain they are right. Lady Macbeth is “his dearest partner of greatness….. greatness is promised her”.
Here, at the beginning, Lady Macbeth seems to have the stronger character and also the bigger ambition. She knows that Macbeth is ambitious but lacks ruthlessness, unlike her. She is prepared to do whatever it takes and will not stop at anything. She says that ruthlessness is an “illness”(i.e. evil) that Macbeth doesn’t have, saying that Macbeth will take any opportunity that comes his way, but he only wants to win his honors honestly. He wants to be king even though the throne is not his by right, but he will not play falsely. Lady Macbeth decides that she will have to help him to find the necessary determination, which is where her great influence on him comes in.
When a messenger comes and tells Lady Macbeth that King Duncan is arriving that night, she realizes that this is the perfect opportunity to make Macbeth king. She calls up spirits of the darkness “unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe, top full of direst cruelty”. She doesn’t want any natural feelings of regret or conscience to get in the way of what she intends. With this driving ambition she persuades Macbeth to do the deed even though he doesn’t want to go ahead with it. Before Duncan arrives, Lady Macbeth predicts that Duncan will never see another day’s sunrise. “O never shall sun that morrow see”. Her plans are already made.
She tells Macbeth to deceive their guest and to hide his real thoughts. She tells him to be more like the poisonous serpent that lies hidden beneath the innocent flower. She says that Macbeth must become better at deceiving people and at being evil, if he wants to achieve his ambitions. “…look like th’ innocent flower, but be the serpent under ‘t.”
Lady Macbeth’s power of deception shows even in talking to her husband, where she uses phrases with more than one meaning. For example: “He’s that coming must be provided for”. Macbeth keeps changing his mind about killing Duncan. He is finally persuaded to go ahead by the determination of Lady Macbeth. When he tells her how Duncan has given him ‘new honors’ lately and that he wants to enjoy the ‘golden’ opinion of everyone. He says this to her because he doesn’t want to seem weak. Lady Macbeth’s turns against Macbeth and says to him, “Was the hope drunk, I wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since….” She accuses him of being a coward. Lady Macbeth’s words have a great effect on Macbeth, similar to the witches. Her powerful speech explains how far she would go to get what she wanted; she would never go back on her word.
Lady Macbeth has joined evil and has seen a chance for Macbeth to become king. She is very forceful in her language and conjures up images of horror. Her earlier wish has been granted.
Macbeth’s decision is attacked and crumbles under his wife’s words, especially after his bravery is questioned. But he still is worried about what will happen to them if they fail, but she tells him they won’t if they keep their nerve. Throughout this scene it is quite astounding to see how such a weak woman can have so much power over a fearsome warrior. Maybe he knows what he wants so he goes along with her forceful, persuasive speeches.
She tells Macbeth the details of her plan and he admires her admiration. He says that they should have boys so that they’d inherit her character. Lady Macbeth’s fierce accusations about Macbeth’s courage have made a big effect on him and he goes through with the deed.
In the Act 1 Scene soliloquy Macbeth wrestles with his conscience about whether to kill Duncan or not. “First as I am his kinsman, and his subject”. Macbeth’s conscience is very persuasive. Duncan’s goodness will be ‘like angels, trumpet-tongued’ if he is murdered, and Macbeth will be condemned to “deep damnation”. His conscience may plague him, but his main worry is with ‘this bank and shoal of time’; the here and now. Macbeth also admits the only thing driving him is self-ambition.
I think that Lady Macbeth ‘s words influenced him greatly and also gave him the final push needed to fulfill his ambition of having power and also being king. There are possibilities that Macbeth and his wife have discussed being King and Queen. This is shown in the letter Macbeth sent to her in Act 1 Scene 5 where he calls her his “his dearest partner of greatness”.
Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to kill Duncan and she actively helps him to cover his tracks, for example in Act 3 Scene 4 Banquo’s ghost has appeared and Macbeth fears it because it has come to accuse him of murder. He begins to lose his mind and speaks out of turn. The guests at the banquet think that Macbeth is mad. Lady Macbeth who is unaware of Banquo’s murder, sticks up for her husband and says all he needs is sleep. “You lack the season of all natures, sleep”. Lady Macbeth pretends that he is given to fits like these. She again taunts him as a coward. In her contrast to her powerful speeches at the end of Act 1, here she says that all he needs is sleep. This is the last time we see Lady Macbeth in control of events, or of herself.
The final factor which leads to Macbeth’s downfall is his own ambition. I think that of all three factors, this is the most significant and important.
In the beginning Macbeth had ambitions and was only prepared to fulfill them through the right route, not by eliminating and murdering everyone that got in his way, which is what he ended up doing. He is a successful general, and described as noble and valiant by many and also admired. He kills the king of Scotland, by being pushed by his dominant, bossy wife who influences him to get his own way. The witch’s prophecies encourage him and tempt him to fulfill his ambition. Their prophecies are reasons also behind his downfall. Macbeth is tempted by their predictions because they echo his own thoughts. The witches never tell lies but, because they speak in puzzling riddles, it is possible for Macbeth to hear what he wants to hear. By time Macbeth realizes his mistake in trusting them, it is too late.
When he first sees the witches they immediately take him in. He can’t stop thinking about their prophecies. When Duncan names his successor Macbeth is disappointed he feels Malcolm is in his way. They trick him and make him feel that he is invincible. “None of women born shall harm Macbeth”. It is because of this belief that Macbeth is willing to take ever-greater risks.
After King Duncan is murdered, Macbeth becomes a tyrant and kills more and more people. In Act 1 Scene 4 Macbeth admits he has ‘black and deep desires’. “The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step on which I must fall down”. In Act 3 Scene 1 Macbeth tells the audience why he is afraid of Banquo. “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus”.
In Act 3 Scene 2 Macbeth tells his wife of his terrible dreams. He almost envys King Duncan who he says, ‘sleeps well’. “O, full of scorpions is my mind dear wife”. Macbeth’s sleep is becoming tormented. He says this because Banquo and Fleance are alive and that as darkness falls ‘there shall be done a deed of dreadful note’, which he doesn’t tell Lady Macbeth of.
Towards the ending of Act 3 Scene 2 Macbeth’s mind is losing its clear sense of right and wrong. He says that wickedness grows stronger through more wickedness- Macbeth is committed to evil.
Towards the end of the play, Macbeth’s ambition has been fulfilled. When Lady Macbeth dies he has given up on life and lost respect for humanity. He has also lost his state of mind. He has changed from a ‘noble Macbeth’ to a ‘butcher’ hated by everyone. The battle between the English army and Scottish lords against Macbeth is easily won since Macbeth is outnumbered. Malcolm’s final judgment is that Lady Macbeth is his ‘fiend-like Queen’.
I think that Macbeth is no more than a wicked, cruel tyrant and that there is nothing noble or heroic about him. Macbeth was someone who was too suspicious of those he should have trusted and too trusting of the witches. Whom he should have suspected more. Macbeth was a brave soldier who was also a moral coward.
Macbeth was to blame for his actions as the concept of responsibility is linked to the idea of choice. Macbeth chose to believe the witches prophecies and this is proved when he revisits them. “How now you secret, black and midnight hags? What is’t you do?” The witches prophecies stir ambition within him-he could’ve chosen to ignore them like Banquo, but perhaps he couldn’t since it meant so much to him that ‘Macbeth shalt be king hereafter’. Macbeth probably had thoughts along with his wife about being king and having control and power.
Macbeth also goes along with Lady Macbeth’s plan to kill Duncan instead of trying to persuade her out of it. He chooses to do this, “I have done the deed” “I am settled and bend up. Each corporal agent to this terrible feat. Away and mock time with fairest show. False face must hide what doth heart know”. Macbeth also chooses to kill Banquo and to carry out the rest of the murders. Macbeth was responsible for his downfall in the choices he made. However the witches did play a part, they were the “instruments of evil” and Lady Macbeth played a part in urging Macbeth to dill Duncan. Ultimately however, Macbeth was responsible for his own downfall and what happened to him.