- Macbeth by Shakespeare


Shakespeare (1564-1616) composed his play during the English Renaissance period. This can be considered a transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. In 1492 Europe's economy had opened up to the New World whose exploitation was bringing more wealth than it had ever experienced. In religion Church authority was questioned by Henry VIII when he initiated a new national religion to replace Catholicism. Authority based on faith began to give way to a new social order governed by science and reason. Humanity was freeing itself from the ancient vision that everything had been discovered or had been revealed by Aristotle or the Bible. Francis Bacon set the goal to reform research by methodical observation of facts in the study of natural phenomena. In 1514 Nicolaus Copernicus had developed his own model of a heliocentric planetary system. It is not surprising that doubts began to pervade thinking. 

This theme of change and scepticism is also found in Shakespeare's theatre. It is accompanied by the questioning of identity and causality.

The French author, Montaigne, was a generation older than Shakespeare. His Essais were translated into English in 1603 and he was a celebrated reference for authors when the playwright was composing. (Montaigne's influence is apparent in The Tempest which includes a virtual quotation from the author in Gonzalo’s speech, Act II, Scene I, Lines 150-167, concerning an imaginary Utopia.)

Montaigne was a declared doubter whose motto was "Que sais-je?"(What do I know?) and he revived the Greek sceptical tradition. He was very critical of the speculative method of scholastic philosophy and agreed with Bacon that there was no empirical method. He argued that contemporary science only served to rationally justify beliefs that were already held It was apologetics dressed as science. (Scientists of the time had to accept ecclesiastical science like Galileo or die at the stake like Giordano Bruno.) 

On the other hand Montaigne was searching for a thought process without ties to dogmatic principles. This is well summed up in his quote: "There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things ..."  

Shakespeare's tragic characters face ignorance and self-doubt. Lear cannot fathom the motivations of his courtiers or even his own. Othello is drawn to tragedy through his own prejudicial scepticism. Hamlet is a man rooted in doubt. Macbeth is at first unsure of his own capabilities but he allows himself to be led to a tragic end by his wife, the self-confident Lady Macbeth, and his own ambition.

In the generation after Shakespeare  Descartes raised doubt to the status of a base for philosophy as the foundation of his epistemology.

The sceptical mood of the era also raises doubts about self-identity. Shakespeare portrays this uncertainty in the roles of his characters themselves. In As You Like It Jacques declares, "All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts..." The message is that our multiple personalities are mirrored in characters on a stage. We are no longer in a Middles Ages' fixed identity but recognise flux even in ourselves. Macbeth repeats this vision taking it to its final consequences: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Our world is a stage, we are the actors. Our identities are as changeable as character roles and the meaning we give to the world is fictional.

Towards the end of the next century, increasingly pushed by the growing influence of science, philosophers of the contemporary age still sought a solid basis for their philosophy. They yearned for a certainty against doubt as a basis for thought, but found doubts about reality and their own identity.

Related to his sceptical outlook on reality Shakespeare rejected the idea of cosmic justice and its corollary causality. He views events as irrational and unpredictable and the universe as unruly and blind.

A century later Hume would also argue that causality is a mental act of association, not a physical fact. His argument is that it is the brain that interprets what happens as causation, but that in reality the link between two events is accidental, not causal. 

Two centuries after Shakespeare Darwin would give a scientific basis to the view that biological adaptation was a matter of chance. He argued that when a natural population explosion happened there ensued a struggle to survive and through casual variations the most adapted subsisted and passed on the winning trait to the next generation.


Macbeth is coming home as a war hero when he encounters three witches who predict a brilliant future for him.

Stirred by ambition through the witches' auguries and encouraged by his wife he assassinates the king so as to occupy the throne. Then he has Banquo murdered to prevent his children inheriting the kingship. To avenge McDuff's opposition to him he has his family slayen.

Finally Lady Macbeth commits suicide due to a bad conscience. McDuff kills Macbeth in a sword fight and parades his severed head.


Role is character

Macbeth is a hero who fights to defend his king at the outset of the play. But after his meeting with the witches ambition works its way into his heart. To gain the power predicted by the voices of evil he needs to assassinate the king but this is not in his character. Lady Macbeth recognises this and intervenes to spur him on:

“Yet I do fear thy nature. It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way."

After the assassination of King Duncan  Macbeth's character has changed. He is no longer the loyal subject but a ruthless ambitionist. The coldblooded murders of Banquo and MacDuff's family are  means to an end. Killing to achieve his political aims is not out of character but now firmly in character. His moral decline parallels his actions.

In traditional stories character dictates your actions. Iago, for example, is wicked from the outset; Hamlet is indecisive. Macbeth, on the other hand, is an evolving character, loyal at the beginning then traitorous, then outright murderer. In Macbeth actions conform personality, not the opposite. 

The main character is formed by his actions which lead him from moral hero to despicable tyrant.  He chose to play the role of murderer and his role has become his character. He is trapped by his actions not his personality. This empirical viewpoint, expressed a generation before Descartes, where the external decides the internal is quite anti-Cartesian. Physical action changes the mind. There is no dualism but synchronicity where bodily actions determine personality.

Self-identity and soliloquies 

Macbeth gradually becomes aware of the trap of his own ambition: it will determine his identity. The evolution of his character is charted by Shakespeare through the protagonist's soliloquies and asides. As in Othello with jealousy and Hamlet with revenge, Macbeth is dominated by an inner force that dictates his character. There is little hint of rationality. The character is moved by his vice. His tragedy is rooted within himself, in a trap of his own choosing.

When he receives confirmation of the witches' first prophecy (I, iii) the audience hears his initial reaction of disconcertion and fear through a short internal reflection: 

"Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings: My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man that function Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is But what is not."

There is also foreshadowing in the speech since he briefly entertains the next step which would entail assassination of the king. Doubting Macbeth is still a loyal hero but ambition is beginning to dominate him.

In I, ii Macbeth starts to wrestle with his conscience, sizing up the consequences of murdering the monarch. He is the king's host, kinsman and subject, not his murderer. He also recognises that the deed will surely return to plague the doer. He finally realises that his motivation will come from within, from his own ambition:

"I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself  And falls on the other."

The dagger scene in II, i confirms that Macbeth has really been taken over by a force which is stronger than himself. His hallucination is the incarnation of his deep desires and they will lead his actions, despite his doubts. He is becoming an onlooker of his own actions.

"Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand?

Come, let me clutch thee. 

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?"

In the Banquo soliloquy (III, i) Macbeth realises that he has committed regicide only to enable Banquo's children to reign. He decides to kill his friend Banquo so that he won't have descendents. He is now conscious that he has defiled his character through murder but his ambition overrides friendship and indeed logic. He has surrendered peace of mind for nothing: murder has called for more murder. He is trapped but cannot help himself.

"No son of mine succeeding. If 't be so, For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind; For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd; Put rancours in the vessel of my peace."

In order to further his goals Macbeth must have McDuff's family murdered. There is no hesitation since the only twisted 'logic' is to continue the killing spree:

"Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits:The flighty purpose never is o'ertook Unless the deed go with it;" (IV ,i)

The end justifies the means. Macbeth's ambition has turned him from a loyal soldier into an immoral slaughterer of women and children.

In Act V, i, the protagonist faces up to himself and his own tragic destiny. 

"I am sick at heart, When I behold—This push Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now."

Before the final battle he admits that even were he to live it would be in constant conflict within himself and with his enemies. Real insight has arrived, but too late. This perception only deepens his tragedy: he knows that his goal is false since it will bring only failure, either death or living death.

In the final soliloquy, known as the Tomorrow speech, Act V, v, Macbeth has just heard of his wife's suicide. He talks of the futility of his aims and deeds. He is in a dark place of despair due to his actions.

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

Through Macbeth's soliloquies he and his audience come face to face with a terrible truth: the role you choose will will become your identity. Macbeth's ambition determined his.

Appearance/Reality through dramatic irony

There appear many spirits, ghosts and visions in the play which contrast what the audience sees and how the characters speak or act. Shakespeare uses this dramatic irony to contrast reality and appearance in the play.

In the dagger scene Macbeth foreshadows his assassination of Duncan by hallucinating a knife with which he will commit the deed. The audience are led to imagine the bloodied handle of a dagger hanging in midair. Even the character himself realises that it's unreal, a "false creation" and wonders out loud if it is conjured up by a "heat-oppressed brain?" Yet, the reality of the murder about to be committed is foretold and created in the onlooker's mind.

Macbeth's first lines in the play "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." echo and underline the ambiguity of the witches' prophecies in which "fair is foul". Their very appearance as bearded women and earthly inhabitants with supernatural aspects invite circumspection. Macbeth is beguiled by their predictions, disregarding their outward appearances, and sudden disappearance. Banquo, however, invites the audience to suspect these enchantresses and their  foreshadowing message of fair and foul. Nothing is as it seems, nor will it be.

After murdering Duncan and his two guards  both Macbeth and his wife have trouble sleeping. The protagonist admits:

"Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep—the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,..."

He realises that he has also killed innocence and the possibility of a peaceful existence. He will not escape the reality of his wickedness in a night's rest. He is trapped in awareness even in his dreams. Guilt will devour him at the same time as ambition.

Macbeth's wife is equally wrought with guilt over Duncan's assassination and she reviews the Banquo ghost scene and the McDuff murders. She sleepwalks and in her dream state reveals her guilt to a doctor and a lady-in-waiting. Appearance reveals internal realities. The audience looks on and learns how her self-confidence has melted into a nightmare. Her dreams of queenship have come back to haunt her real life.

"Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!"

In the end she goes mad and probably commits suicide. Reality imposes itself on dreams.

Guilt conjures up another hallucination when Macbeth's seat at the banquet is occupied by Banquo's ghost. But Lady Macbeth is on hand to point out the dramatic irony: everybody except Macbeth understands that this is not real but a figment of his guilt-ridden imagination.

"This is the very painting of your fear: This is the air-drawn dagger which, you said, Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts, Impostors to true fear, would well become A woman's story at a winter's fire, Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself! Why do you make such faces? When all's done, You look but on a stool."

Towards the end of the play, and Macbeth's life, he realises the emptiness he has lived:

"As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,..."

"Mouth-honour", shorthand for hypocritical praise, not real friendship. This is all he can expect from those who surround him. Macbeth finally perceives the distinction between appearance and reality in his life. Something the audience has understood from the outset through the author's skilful use of dramatic irony.

Causality and Time 

A sceptical outlook on reality led Shakespeare to reject the idea of cosmic justice and its corollary causality. He views events as unpredictable and the universe as unruly. Causes are not located in a supernatural sphere but within the personalities of the characters themselves. In Macbeth it is the protagonist's ambition to gain maximum power as quickly as possible and that leads him into a struggle with Time.

The first word of the play "When" is spoken by a witch. This coven of clairvoyants appears to be able to outwit time by prophesying the future. However, they are still subject to temporality. Time dominates both the natural and supernatural spheres.

This is underlined by Macbeth to the audience in scene 3 of the same first Act:

(Aside) Come what come may, Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Macbeth accepts that time is running the show, not himself or even the prophesies.

When thinking about the moment of the king's murder Macbeth sees himself on a sandbank of time safe from the waves. 

"But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We'ld jump the life to come."

However he also recognises that the tide will finally return to engulf him. Tide and time spare no man.

Lady Macbeth also encourages her husband “To beguile the time, / Look like the time,”. The reference is to the saying  “to beguile the time with a fair face.” She is referring to deceiving the court as to his murderous intentions. He is able to delude the courtiers for the moment but what he doesn't anticipate is that time cannot be circumvented. His evil deed will catch up with him in the future.

He started out believing in an imaginary future of power thinking that fate would drop it into his lap. Too late he later realises his error:

 "I am in blood / Stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er." 

In Act 3 he still appears to think that he can go back and doesn't yet realise that he cannot rewind the clock. 

In the final Act the future has arrived and Macbeth's tardy understanding of time with it:

"Tomorrow, and  tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death."

He cannot secure the future nor escape the past. He has lost in his struggle with time to avoid his comeuppance. Instead of cutting a regal figure he now appears in the role of a deceived fool: 

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

Time is a force causing the action to move forward. Macbeth chooses his actions but he cannot stop time which will demand retribution.

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