by David Schlachter
William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” is a play that is filled with action and suspense, but also with messages. Personally, I think that the main message that Shakespeare is trying to tell us is that when ambition goes unhindered by moral values, it will corrupt and destroy people and nations.
Shakespeare expressed this message particularly in his two main characters, Macbeth & Lady Macbeth. Both were very ambitious and in the end their ambition caused their demise. For instance, when Macbeth first received the prophecies from the witches he immediately thought of murdering Duncan, although his common sense told him that that was not a good idea. When Macbeth sent his wife a letter about the prophecies, she took a more direct approach to satisfy her ambition; she cleverly and relentlessly drove her husband to kill Duncan, and anyone else that was a threat to their staying in power, but in the end Lady Macbeth’s conscience caught up with her and had a negative impact on her health. Macbeth, on the other hand, dealt with the moral consequences of his murders much better than his wife, mostly by telling himself that life is pointless and whatever he does won’t really matter. Shakespeare shows us this in Act 5, Scene 5, when Macbeth says, “Life’s but a walking shadow,” and goes on with other examples of life’s futility. Because of this mentality, he became reckless, paranoid, and boastfully insane, making it easier for Malcolm to dispose of him and then claim the throne, and to restore peace and order to Scotland.
This pattern of an ambitious person who has no moral limits rising to power, and then falling because of their ambition seems to be a common theme in literature and in the world. For example, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Sauron was an ambitious creature who wanted to rule Middle Earth. He created the one ring to give him power, and then started on a campaign of chaos and destruction. Because of his ambition though, he became suspicious and paranoid that everyone else in the world wanted to steal his power, therefore allowing Frodo to destroy the ring.
Just like Sauron, Macbeth also became paranoid and stopped trusting anyone. This is especially illustrated in Act 3, Scene 3, where the murderers were waiting to kill Banquo and Fleance. In the scene Macbeth had a third murderer join the two that he had already hired. As one of the original murderers stated, “He needs not our mistrust; since he delivers our offices, and what we have to do.” Macbeth’s paranoia never really got him anywhere, instead it developed into a sort of boastful madness. In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth was making plans to defend against Malcolm’s army. He said, “Our castle’s strength will laugh a siege to scorn.” Later though, a messenger informed him that Birnam Wood was moving towards the castle. Macbeth rapidly changed his mind, and said, “Arm, arm, and out… There is no flying hence nor tarrying here,” when he could have defended the castle and increased his chances of winning the war.
Macbeth’s rapidly degrading state of mind, his downfall, and the war in Scotland were all because of his, and his wife’s ambition. Without their ambition Duncan would not have been murdered, Lady Macbeth’s conscience wouldn’t have lead her to her death, and Macbeth might have been happily living in Scotland as thane of Glamis and Cawdor. Shakespeare is telling us that if our ambition goes unchecked, it will lead to our demise.
Another theme that I found was prominent throughout the book was that of masculinity. In the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth often related masculinity to cruelty. It seemed that whenever they talked about manhood, something about violence would soon be said. For example, Lady Macbeth often challenged Macbeth’s masculinity in order to manipulate him. In Act 1, Scene 7, Duncan arrived at Macbeth’s castle, and Lady Macbeth was trying to get Macbeth to murder Duncan. Lady Macbeth said, “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.” Macbeth, with his rather violent concept of manhood, was convinced that by murdering Duncan and satisfying his ambition he would be a better man. Macbeth took a page from his wife’s book when he hired the murderers in Act 3, Scene 1. It would appear that the murderers in this scene were not hired assassins, since they had some concerns about the moral implications of murdering Banquo. When one of the murderers says, “We are men, my liege,” Macbeth insulted their masculinity, and eventually got them to murder Banquo. I think that Shakespeare was trying to tell people that masculinity is not necessarily related to cruelty. He shows us what happens to Macbeth, who lives by his definition of masculinity, and he also shows us a somewhat better definition of masculinity, beginning in Act 4, Scene 3. In the scene Macduff had just found out about his family’s murder, and Malcolm advised him to, “Dispute it like a man.” Macduff added that he must also, “Feel it like a man.” Later, in Act 5, Scene 9 Siward receives news of his son’s death. He takes the news quite well, commenting that he died a good death, and was a man in his father’s eyes. Malcolm responded, “He’s worth more sorrow, and that I’ll spend for him.” It seems that Shakespeare is telling us that masculinity is not entirely characterised by bumping off your enemies, but that emotions and morals are a part of masculinity too.
I think that the play Macbeth was mainly written to please King James 1. Looking at the material that Shakespeare would probably have had to find out about the Scottish civil war (mainly Holinshed’s Chronicles, by Raphael Holinshed), it seems that Shakespeare changed quite a few things around to suit his purposes. For instance, in Holinshed’s Chronicles, Banquo is portrayed as Macbeth’s active accomplice. Of course, for the play this just wouldn’t do, since James was supposedly Banquo’s descendant. So, in the spirit of political correctness Banquo became a good hearted, honest general. Also, I think that Shakespeare wrote Act 4, Scene 1 particularly with James in mind, since 8 kings enter the stage. The eighth king in the Stuart line was James, and so he would probably like to see himself on stage, especially having a mirror. As Macbeth said in the scene, “And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass which shows me many more.” King James would have especially liked this part of the play, since it implied that his line of kings would be ruling for a long time. Clearly, the play was written to make Macbeth look worse, and James look better. Of course, Shakespeare did all this, while also making a play that would sell.
Of course, another reason that James would have liked the play would be that throughout the play it was suggested that the king was divinely appointed. For example, the first we hear of Macbeth is from a soldier reporting about when Macbeth was facing the King of Norway and he, “unseam’d him from nave to chaps, and fix’d his head upon our battlements.” Hardly disturbed, Duncan replied, “O valiant cousin, worthy gentlemen!” Faced with the though of killing Duncan though, Macbeth thought, “My thought, whose horrid murder is yet fantastical, shakes so my single state of man that function is smothered in surmise.” After the murder, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth both became insane, implying that regicide is much worse than homicide because the king is appointed by God. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross and an old man are talking about events that happened on the night of Duncan’s murder. The night of Duncan’s murder the king’s horses ate each other, the earth was shaking, and owls (supposedly omens of death) were everywhere. This suggests that the king being murdered had disturbed the natural balance of nature. Also, in Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff discovered that Duncan was murdered and he said hysterically, “Confusion now hath made his master-piece. Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope the Lord’s annointed temple, and stole hence the life o’ the building.” (Another interesting thing to note is that while Duncan and Malcolm were considered kings, Macbeth was soon know as “the tyrant.”) In short, Shakespeare’s use of the English language enabled him to make Macbeth very politically correct.
One of the main things that made it possible for Shakespeare to make his plays sell, while being politically correct and entertaining, was his masterful use of the English language. Shakespeare is accredited with creating many new words and phrases in English, and I found his literary techniques very clever.
For instance, Shakespeare uses a lot of imagery in Macbeth. It seems that he uses darkness as an image in the book often, for quite a few purposes. For example, Shakespeare started out his play with the witches in, “Thunder and lightning,” implying darkness. A little bit further on in the play (Act 1, Scene 3), Banquo talks a bit about the powers of darkness deceiving and betraying us (line 132). I think that Shakespeare used darkness in the play to represent evil; most of the major events in the play took place in the darkness, and those that did were definitely not ‘good.’ Actually, the only scenes that occur in the daylight are the very ironic scene where Duncan comments on what a nice day it is outside of the castle of death, and the last scene where peace and order are restored to Scotland. It seems that Shakespeare was using darkness and light to highlight all of the sinister events that occurred in the play. Perhaps another reason that Shakespeare used so much darkness in the play, especially near its beginning, was to set the mood for the play.
Shakespeare also used other images in Macbeth, such as blood and clothes, but if I described them here someone might be reading all night.
Another theme in Macbeth is that evil wears a pretty cloak, or as the witches said, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.” The most prominent example of this in the play would be that the idea of killing Duncan seemed good to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but it obviously didn’t turn out well. After the murder, Macbeth said in Act 3, Scene 2, “Better be with the dead.” By murdering Duncan Macbeth sacrificed a lot, as he mentioned in Act 3, Scene 1. As he said, “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,” and later on he stated, “For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered; put rancours in the vessel of my peace only for them; and mine eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man.” Banquo recognised this concept early on in the play when he said, “Oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.” This, as it turns out, is exactly what the witches did to Macbeth. Their cleverly woven ‘prophecies’ told Macbeth the truth, but only to tap into his ambition, therefore, as Banquo said, to betray him in “deepest consequence.”
This theme in Macbeth, that evil wears a pretty cloak, makes me think about quite a few problems in the world. One of these problems that affects too many teenagers though, could be drugs. To some, drugs seem good. They say that drugs make you feel good, and there could be cash to be gained from selling them, similar to how Macbeth thought that killing Duncan would be good for him. The truth though is much different. For example, Jade Bell, who recently came to D’Arcy, is an excellent example of what happens to many drug users, although a tomb stone could be more fitting. True, drugs make you feel good (“[they] tell us truths, win us with honest trifles”), but they tend to lead one to death, or living in ruin (“to betray us in deepest consequence”).
Another thing that I noticed in Macbeth was that Shakespeare used some interesting foreshadowing. For example, the opening scene with the witches set the (dark) mood for the play. The second scene also did some foreshadowing, suggesting that the rest of the play would be violent and full of carnage. In conclusion, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is an excellent play that is filled with messages, and connections to the world today.