A Criticism Of Macbeth By William Shakespeare

A criticism of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, accusing it of being a disunified play with aspects of both a morality play, and a tragedy.

Among all of Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth creates the most ambiguous emotive reaction. In contrast to most of his other tragic characters, Macbeth evokes a confused sympathy from the reader which disrupts the continuity of the play. This is because the tragedy of Macbeth's fall is diluted by his own moral degeneracy. The exposition of the play parallels a classical tragedy, but fate and the Weird Sisters complicate Macbeth's characterization, resulting in a barrier to audience identification. It is Macbeth's character and his morality in conjunction with the play's emphasis on fate that cause the dichotomy between Macbeth as a tragedy and Macbeth as a morality play, ultimately destroying the play's unity.

Macbeth is, both by expectation and by means of the exposition, set up as a classical tragedy. The very title of the play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, encourages the assumption on the part of the audience that Macbeth is indeed a tragedy. In Elizabethan times by expectation and certainly in modern times by Shakespeare's reputation, the audience would assume that Macbeth is a tragedy. The initial stages of the play set Macbeth up as a brave and noble character. "For brave Macbeth -- well he deserves that name --/ Disdaining Fortune, with brandished steel, . . . Like valor's minion . . . (I.ii.16-19)." The king later praises him, "O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman! (I.ii.24)" Further exposition upon Macbeth's valor and the king's presentation of the Thaneship of Cawdor to Macbeth heighten the audience's awareness of his truly noble character. This sets the stage that is established in every great tragedy. A brave and noble character is introduced who should, through some fault of character or error of judgment, fall from his noble state into disgrace. Macbeth, however, deviates from classical tragedy.

While the tragic hero suffers from a flaw within himself, a personal and self-oriented error which is purely the fault of the character, Macbeth is the victim of an external force. This external force is fate, fate introduced by prophecy, supported by the Weird Sisters, and reinforced by Lady Macbeth. The Witches' prophecy to Macbeth that he shall become Thane of Cawdor and King hereafter, while perhaps unrealistic to Macbeth, is already half-fulfilled to the audience. This dramatic irony lends credence to an already mysterious and supernatural dialogue between the Sisters, Macbeth, and Banquo. When later Macbeth learns that he has been named Cawdor, his response is "If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me,/ Without my stir (I.iii.143-144)." But this conclusion is not reached before he suffers from a momentary pang of murderous ambition, "If good, why do I yield to that suggestion/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/ And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,/ Against the use of nature? (I.iii.134-137)." By his own admission, however, Macbeth seems to both disdain and reject this course of action, although perhaps not entirely. It is at this point that the audience begins to see that Macbeth is losing some of his autonomy and becoming influenced by fate. In the next scene, while witnessing Malcolm being named Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth contemplates the possibilities of his future coronation, considering both patience and murder. "The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step/ On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,/ For in my way it lies (I.iv.48-50)." There is no decision between the two options, thus deferring the audience's judgment of Macbeth while concurrently showing him to be influenced by the external force of fate. In Act I scene v and Act I scene vii Lady Macbeth demonstrates her influence upon Macbeth. Throughout the dialogues between Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth becomes increasingly dehumanized and observable as an external manifestation of fate and ambition. She argues valor and manliness with Macbeth to push him into murdering Duncan. "I would . . . Have plucked my nipple from [my baby's] boneless gums,/ And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you/ Have done to [Duncan's murder] (I.vii.56-69)." Lady Macbeth's influence on Macbeth furthers the external aspect of Macbeth's fall.

Macbeth seems to express some regret after murdering Duncan in his refusal to return and arrange the daggers and in various statements including his horror at his inability to say "Amen." This regret, however, is short lived. Even Macbeth realizes that he has lost the brave and noble self of the beginning of the play to an evil and overriding force which now absorbs his character. At this point Macbeth has lost all autonomy, obliterating the character of Macbeth and becoming a symbol of evil. Reinforcing this moral interpretation perhaps most powerfully is the knocking which continues throughout the end of Act II scene ii. Every time there is a knock Macbeth seems to recoil in fear. This fear, in fact, becomes guilt, and the knocking his conscience, as the knocking goes on unanswered and continues in the next scene as the Porter discusses it in terms of Beelzebub, hell, everlasting flame, etc. Macbeth also recounts that he heard a voice yelling, "Sleep no more! . . . Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor/ Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more (II.ii.39-42)." Again an interlude appears which parallels Macbeth's conscience and condemns him for his actions, for his lack of morality. The interpretation of Macbeth as tragic is supportable in the preliminary stages of the play where the Witches and Lady Macbeth seem to drive him against his will, but Macbeth becomes an anti-conscience after Duncan's murder as he nonchalantly murders his friends and subjects.

The section of the play after Duncan's murder significantly alleviates the polarity of the emotive forces. Earlier, the Witches introduce a complication in the form of free will versus fate. This element embodies the very contradiction of tragedy versus morality as Macbeth seems both to be forced into action by the prophecy and to be prematurely achieving his fate by ill means. This also dichotomizes his character by either magnifying his ambition or revealing its inherent magnitude. The intrinsic evil of Macbeth's world also produces this polarization. Either Duncan's murder is an effect of his conscience-void kingdom or his kingdom is denigrated by Duncan's murder. From these and similar contradictions, little but confusion can be produced. While in the beginning both a tragic and a moralistic interpretation of the play can be supported, in the post-murder section of Macbeth little but morality can be supported. Macbeth quickly recovers from his pangs of regret to order Banquo and Fleance's murders. Macbeth's commentary on Banquo deems him a man of "royalty of nature" and "dauntless temper of . . . mind (III.i.50-53)." Macbeth then enters into a lengthy and splendid speech condemning Banquo and persuading men to murder him, a murder which evokes horror as Banquo "safe in a ditch . . . bides,/ With twenty trenched gashes on his head, . . . (III.iv.27-28)." The ensuing banquet scene heightens a sense of morality as Macbeth's conscience seems to accost him with the appearance of Banquo's ghost. Further meetings of the witches, popular suspicion upon Macbeth indicated by Lennox in Act III scene vi, and a myriad of speeches by Macbeth which reveal his degenerating character and lack of conscience all continue to heighten the sense of Macbeth's immorality. Macbeth later decides to murder Macduff's line as he completely surrenders to fate in a justification of allowing "The very firstlings of [Macbeth's] heart shall be/ The firstlings of [Macbeth's] hand (IV.i.147-148)." On this note Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff's wife, his children, and anyone who is related to Macduff. This last murder is the most cold-hearted and overtly immoral of all of Macbeth's actions. A further discussion between Ross and Macduff reveals that all of Scotland is a "grave" where "sorrow seems/ A [ordinary emotion]" and murder is rampant (IV.iii.165-173). Here Macbeth is referred to as "the tyrant" by both Macduff and Ross. References by Malcolm to Christendom, mercy, and comfort induce a sort of opposite moral figure in Malcolm. Macbeth and Malcolm seem to represent opposites, one as a good king, the other a bad, one as murderous, the other as merciful. This is yet again a technique which heightens the audience's perception of Macbeth's immoral character.

Macbeth has obviously achieved an immoral status by the end of the play, a fact which should make Macbeth an antagonist and moral scapegoat for the audience to condemn. This, however, is not the case. The audience sympathizes with Macbeth, a sympathy deriving from the largely tragic character of his fall into immorality and the confusion surrounding fate's influence on Macbeth in the murder Duncan. The immorality of Macbeth causes a sense of guilt in the audience for sympathizing with Macbeth. What result does this ambivalence have upon the audience? A strict morality play sanctifies social morality and condemns its transgression while a tragedy creates a sympathetic horror of the main character and achieves a cathartic renewal of the audience's social righteousness. Both of these methods have a similar goal in their effect upon the audience which is to maintain social cohesion. The methods of achieving this goal, however, destroy the ultimate purpose when they create opposing emotive reactions for the same character, the character which would facilitate either method. This is precisely what happens in Macbeth and precisely why the character of Macbeth destroys the play's purpose, resulting in ambiguity and confusion instead of a cohesive emotional response.

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