Power is a constant struggle in society, but how far will people go to claim power? Can the thirst for power led to sin? Are there any repercussions from having too much power? The celebrated playwright William Shakespeare presents his argument about power in his famous play, The Tragedy of Macbeth.
In The Tragedy of Macbeth, the eponymous Scotsman receives a prophecy from three witches that he’ll become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition for the throne and provoked by his wife, Macbeth murders the honorable King Duncan so that he can be the sole leader of Scotland. However, many thanes and sons of Duncan rebel against Macbeth’s despotic rule. Macbeth gains power by the act of killing; Macbeth loses his power and his life by the act of killing. Macbeth’s lust for more power caused his mind to spiral into descending chaos and death. Inspired by the results failed Gunpowder Plot, the dynamic characterization of Macbeth, a fascination with mental illness, and his depiction of male characters, Shakespeare asserts that the greed for power causes men to commit immoral actions in order to warn society about pride’s corruption of the human mind.
Shakespeare, responding to the failed Gunpowder Plot, highlights King Duncan’s death by Macbeth and its aftermath to elucidate that powerful figures will always face external threats from subordinates. During the Renaissance, many members of royalty reigned over England, Scotland, and Wales. One prominent leader was King James I. Lewis Hall notes that King James I faced threats from religious opponents. King James I, a Protestant who wielded great power, “allowed Anti-Catholicism laws” to flourish in his kingdom.
Professor Andrew Hadfield of the University of Sussex asserts that Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, participated in the Gunpowder Plot, and “attempted to kill James I and bomb both houses of Parliament.” This coup failed to kill the King. Shakespeare uses this chaotic moment in British history to influence scenes of his play. For instance, Processor Hadfield notes that “the attempt to murder King James I is comparable to Macbeth because he also tried to kill a king.
” Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth illustrates the success and aftermath of a regicide, very much opposite of the Gunpowder Plot. By comparing The Tragedy of Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot, it is clear that Fawkes and Macbeth are very similar: they are both subordinates who tried to kill powerful men–only latter succeeds. Macbeth was well aware of the authority and greatness of King Duncan, asserting that he “hath been so clear in his great office” (Shakespeare 1.7.17). Similar to James I, Duncan is a truly influential leader; however, Macbeth, a subordinate who has some power, aspires to be the King of Scotland. In addition, during the famous soliloquy in Act II, Macbeth is aware that he must partake in “bloody business” (2.
1.49), Once Macbeth executes his “bloody businesses,” committing regicide, other subordinates, such as Angus, declare that the “title of of king hangs loose above Macbeth” (5.5.
28). Undoubtedly, those with power will always have enemies who want their title, their prestige, and most importantly, their power. By denouncing Macbeth as unfit to be king, it is evident that Angus, like others, are driven to usurp Macbeth’s power. Through the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare stresses the constant power struggle between those possessing and desiring power.
By creating Macbeth as a dynamic character, Shakespeare reveals how one changes due to power. Macbeth is considered a dynamic character character. In the literary world, a dynamic character is a literary character who undergoes an important innerchange, as a change in belief or how they behave. The shift of characterization for Macbeth is vivid, yet not entirely noticeable at first. In the first acts, Macbeth is a loyal and respectful thane of King Duncan.
He has every trait an honorable thane should have. In fact, Professor Ronald Ricomini of Santa Clara University asserts that ” Macbeth displayed the ethics of a warrior” in the beginning of the play. Macbeth is dauntless on the battlefield during Act I, and his courage is quickly recognized by his fellow warriors. A captain in Act I, Scene II reports to King Duncan that Norway’s army “is too weak for Macbeth”(1.2.15). Upon hearing the glorious news, King Duncan extols Macbeth, excimapling that he’s a “worthy gentlemen” (1.2.
24). Through the use of inference, it’s fair to assume Macbeth as a man of respect, integrity, and loyalty; however, these characteristics vanish after Macbeth commits regicide. He becomes a despot, and Scotland is thrown into chaos.
An example of Macbeth engulfed with power is seen in Act V, when Macbeth’s castle was under attack from Macduff’s forces. A messengers warns Macbeth that troops see Brigham Woods moving. Because of the anxiety and stress from the impending invasion of his castle, Macbeth subsequently becomes filled with rage, warning the messenger, if lying, “upon the highest tree thou shall hang alive/ till famine cling thee” (5.5.
38-39). Through the use of intimidation and threats, Macbeth is no longer a respectful warrior; instead, he is a ruthless tyrant. With the power he has as king, Macbeth’s character shifts from a respectable warrior and thane to a tyrant. Shakespeare uses this shift of character to reveal to society the dangers of greed for power and how it can change people’s morals and values. By depicting Macbeth with melancholy, Shakespeare, utilizing his keen interest in mental illnesses, argues that the human mind will be corrupted from power. Daniel Dufala of Stockholm University describes how the scientific works of John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, influenced The Tragedy of Macbeth.
Hall was a physician and had vast knowledge about the human mind and conscious. Shakespeare was able to gain an understanding about mental health due to Hall. He especially learned most about melancholy, “characterized by disturbances such as rage, anxiety, apathy, or deep sadness.” Through the illness of melancholy, the character of Macbeth is depicted as being paranoid and anxious once he becomes king. In the famous dagger scene in Act II, Macbeth believes that he sees a floating dagger in the air. Macbeth eventually has an epiphany during his monologue, asserting that the dagger is nothing but “a dagger of the mind, a false creation” (2.
1.39). Since Macbeth is contemplating committing regicide, it’s clear that his mind slowly losing its senses. His mind also makes up the ghost of the slain Banquo in the dinner scene of Act III. Macbeth, noting the imaginative ghost, shrieks in terror while his guests are puzzled by his arbitrary outburst. He cries anxiously to his guests , “Ari thee, see there! Behold! Look! Lo! How say you?” (3.4.
73). Macbeth is experiencing what Shakespeare considered melancholy to highlight his mind’s corruption from power and subsequent guilt due to the death of former allies. The guests – who are lords of Macbeth, who are men who wield power in Scotland, and who are loyal to Macbeth – don’t understand why Macbeth suddenly is in a state of morbid fear. Eventually, Macbeth assures his perplexed lords that he simply has a “strange infirmity, which is nothing” (3.
4.90). Macbeth has to masquerade his outburst in order to appear mentally stable in front of his subordinates.
Because of his personal knowledge with illnesses such as melancholy, Shakespeare stresses the mind’s slow destruction from obtaining power. By depicting men with aggressive tendencies, Shakespeare highlights that the natural tendencies of men can assist them in their quest for power. During the Renaissance, men were seen as loyal and brave to their lords, thanes, and king.
Leann Pettit notes how Shakespeare wrote his plays with man following male stereotypes, since his stories had “readers seeing a masculine man” as the protagonist. It is inferred that Shakespeare uses male gender roles during the time of enlightenment to show how their natural tendencies benefit them. In the first scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Duncan meets a captain who just fought against the Norwegian army. When approached by the tired captain, the King asks Malcom “What bloody man is this?” (1.2.
1). By acknowledging that the man is bloody, yet alive, it’s presumed that this man has just recently saw the death and destruction of the battlefield. The bloody captain informs King Duncan the bravery Macbeth has shown against both a rebellious thane and the Norweigns. Macbeth is said to have a sword “smoked with bloody execution” (1.2.20).
Macbeth’s tendencies to kill and destroy is considered socially acceptable, as they are traits possessed by brave male warriors. Mary Thompson and Francesco Anacona proclaims that Macbeth’s aggressive nature was common for warriors, since “the violent behavior… was deemed to be bravery.” This violent nature assisted Macbeth to claim power by committing regicide. However, Macbeth isn’t the only man willing to kill to gain power in this play.
Macduff and his forces storms into Macbeth’s castle in Act V to hunt down Macbeth and end his reign in Scotland. Macduff gives Macbeth a chance to submit to him. However, embracing the proud warar culture instilled in him, he declares, “I will not yield” (5.8.41). Macbeth’s ego and pride ultimately caused his demise, and Macbeth’s violent tendencies caused him to commit tyrannicide and become the new King of Scotland. Shakespeare uses the violent nature of men like Macduff and Macbeth to emphasize how the inherent traits of men assist them in their quest for greed.
Without a shred of doubt, William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is still an iconic tale today, recognized by millions of people. In the theatrical world, superstitions exist about saying “Macbeth” on stage, as actors believed the play is cursed. Allusions to The Tragedy of Macbeth is infused in media and pop culture; therefore, society also notices Shakespeare’s view on man’s quest for power. Shakespeare recognized that the ambition for power has consequences, such as betrayal, loss of common sense, and potential death. Cynicalism and lust for power was present in the hearts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Paranoia, chaos, and bloodshed are woven throughout the plot to show the woes power can bring. Shakespeare utilizes characterization, as well as his own knowledge and experiences, to convey how far people will go to have dominance over land, people, and society. Macbeth is the epitome of mental instability and the destruction of a man’s moral principles: respectability, loyalty, fearlessness.
By killing, Macbeth claims power through a violent, unjust, and immoral act. Macbeth’s regicide sets the stage for his eventual downfall. Shakespeare asserts that no man should ever give up his respect, morals, and sanity for power. In today’s age of corruption in the courtroom and government, it seems that our society gets closer and closer to the warnings of Shakespeare over four hundred years ago.