Macbeth: The Struggle Against Evil Essay
Macbeth: The Struggle Against Evil
Thesis Statement: In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the character Macbeth constantly battles against his evil nature. As the play progresses, Macbeth seems to have become a completely evil tyrant, but he never fully ends his struggle against evil.
I. Macbeth: a noble and virtuous character
II. Struggle with temptation and evil
C. Lady Macbeth
III. Murder of Duncan
A. Before the murder
B. Effects of the murder
IV. Murder of Banquo
V. Murder of Macduff’s family
VI. Lasting nobility and signs of conscience
William Shakespeare’s primary source for Macbeth was Holinshed’s History of Scotland. The fictional character, Macbeth, is based mainly on the actual Macbeth who Holinshed writes about. This Scottish play is, “Shakespeare’s chief tragic gift to the world at large” (Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher 279). Although it is his shortest play, it is often considered to be his best. In it he depicts the “corruption of a soul” in a way that both excites us, yet at the same time brings fear to us (Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher 279).
He is a character with whom, we are strangely able to identify, and whose destruction we cannot watch without feelings of fright and pity (Alden 276). It is a play, which becomes the personal tragedy of Macbeth, a noble character whose flaws cause his downfall. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the character Macbeth constantly battles against his evil nature. As the play progresses, Macbeth seems to have become a completely evil tyrant, but he never fully ends his struggle against evil.
Initially, Macbeth is portrayed as a brave, noble, and loyal man. He is well known and praised by many, including Duncan, the King of Scotland, who praises him for his loyalty and successes in battle. Macbeth seems to be the quintessence of nobility. Walter Curry states, “He knows what it is to be actively loyal to king and country, to accept duty, to promote justice, amity, and piety” (112). Before meeting the witches, he seems to have a “definite disposition”, to be resolute in his choices, and free from ambiguity (Curry 104). According to Raymond Alden, “The principle point is that Macbeth is presented to us at the outset in a nobly attractive form and is actually, in some sense, a good man” (276).
When he meets the witches, they help instill evil thoughts into his mind. They see, “what passions drive him and what dark desires await their fostering” (Curry 116). He struggles with these evil thoughts which are already rooted within him. His real temptation begins after hearing
the witches’ predictions saying that he will become king. Curry says that the witches’ prophecy, “arouses his passions and inflames his imagination to the extent that nothing is but what is not” (78). Realizing his flaws in character and that he wants the kingdom, they feed his strong sense of ambition and self-love. Curry explains that the witches, “symbolize a secret world of evil spirits that with satanic cunning lie in wait for human souls, conquering the unguarded heart and rejoicing in hurling their victim to the dust of misery and sin”(57). Their purpose is, “to stimulate Macbeth’s imagination to the point of grasping some underlying emotional, moral, or intellectual content” (Curry 55). Through their temptation, the witches are able to confuse and corrupt his judgement so that he is lead towards choosing the means to reach his desired goal, to become king.
After the first appearance of the witches, Macbeth’s pride and ambition begin to overcome him. Evil thoughts of how he could obtain the crown run through his mind. He really begins to go through an internal struggle against evil. Curry says that he is too concerned not with, “attaining the ultimate good, but of flattering his inordinate love of self” (113). He is incapable of using correct judgement and making a reasonable decision. He knows that to become king, he will have to commit murder.
He is very sensible and thinks about what the consequences of his actions would be. He still has a strong sense of conscience; although, his ambition is beginning to overtake him. Alden observes that Macbeth’s evil thoughts are, “in the making, instead of ready made; and they struggle against that sense of their vileness which we have already observed” (277). Duncan is a good and virtuous king; he is also Macbeth’s cousin. The power of his ambition is demonstrated when he says, “I have no spur / to prick the sides of
my intent but / vaulting ambition, which oerleaps itself / and falls on th’ other” (1.7.25-28). “Vaulting ambition” is his chief character flaw and his only reason to kill the king. Edward Dowden points out that, “Shakespeare does not believe in any sudden transformation of a noble and loyal soul into that of a traitor and murderer” (223). Macbeth’s conscience still bothers him, even though he knows what course of action he should take. After much contemplation, he resolves not to kill Duncan, but his decision doesn’t last long. Evil thoughts overcome him.
Lady Macbeth is also seen as an evil with which he struggles against. She understands Macbeth very well and knows exactly how to manipulate him. She knows that he is a good man. This is demonstrated to us when she says, “Yet I do fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / the illness should attend it” ( 1.5.16-20). She also knows that he will probably not go through with his plans without her pressuring and influencing him to go through with them. She decides that she must rid of anything that interferes with him becoming king. Macbeth tells her that he has decided not to kill the king and she becomes infuriated.
She knows that he is a very proud man, so by questioning his manhood she is able to convince him to kill the king. According to Curry, “He dares do all that may become a man. And it is precisely this established foundation of his self-esteem that Lady Macbeth assaults. She charges him with unmasculine weakness and contemptible cowardice” (118). She is a very influential force upon him and holds much power. Macbeth succumbs to the temptation and evil of his wife. Even though he has given into the temptation and evil, he continues to have a strong sense of conscience and fears the evil act which he is soon going to commit.
Macbeth goes through a major struggle with his guilt and conscience when he commits his first murder, the murder of Duncan. Wilson Knight observes that, “He himself is hopelessly at a loss, and has little idea as to why he is going to murder Duncan” (121). Macbeth is nervous and feels very guilty about murdering him. He feels so guilty that he even becomes delusional and starts imagining things. His regretting conscience and struggle against evil is demonstrated to us when directly after murdering him, he hears voices saying, “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more” (2.2.41-42). He is very remorseful and doesn’t want to think about the evil act which he has just committed. His remorse and conscience is shown after killing Duncan when he says, “This is a sorry sight” (2.2.20). He is very rattled and on edge because of his sins.
Beginning after the first murder, there is a dramatic change in the Macbeth’s character. Curry says, “It is a profound alteration in the state of his personality, an astounding dislocation of the very center of being, which fixes itself immediately in a habit inclining to further crime” (104). After murdering Duncan, it’s as if the good in him begins to diminish.
He starts to lose some of his conscience and begins transforming into an almost evil character. Curry quotes Thomas Aquinas in saying, “when man through one sinful act loses honor, charity, or shame, or anything else that withdraws him from evil, he thereby falls into another sin, the first being the accidental cause of the second” (119). He becomes less concerned with conscience, and more concerned with completing what he has already begun: “I am in blood stepped so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.5.37- ). He feels like it is too late for him to turn back now, and that he has nothing left to lose at this point.
It becomes easier for Macbeth to commit the second and third murders. A “train” of sins and crimes follow the first crime he commits (Curry 120). The second murder is the murder of Banquo. Banquo was one of his close colleagues but his, “wracking passions, frayed nerves, and inordinate apprehension of the imagination,” have led him to believe that Banquo’s knowledge
Could be a possible threat to him (Curry 127). He built it up in his mind that Banquo was the main source of all his problems and a very significant threat to his kingdom. Thinking that doing evil will be easier if he does it quickly, he says, “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand” (4.1.147-148). Taking this irrational course of action leads to the third murder that Macbeth commits, the murder of Macduff’s family. Macduff is one of the main people who oppose Macbeth and pose a major threat. Without any rational reason, and in a rage of anger, he surprises Macduff’s castle and kills everyone in his family. By this time it seems as if so many of his sins have built up, and that almost all of the goodness which he initially had has left him. He remains an almost completely evil tyrant.
Although finally, it seems like there is no goodness and nobility remaining in him, there is. Macbeth never fully allows himself to become entirely evil. There are still lasting signs of conscience and virtue shown in his character. Curry explains, ” Macbeth remains essentially human and his conscience continues to witness the diminution of his being. There is still left necessarily some natural good in him; sin cannot completely deprive him of his rational nature, which is the root of his inescapable inclination to virtue”(133). Even when Macbeth is about to die, he demonstrates nobility by not killing himself or giving up. He also did not want to kill Macduff because he felt guilty about spilling so much of his blood already. This shows his
lasting conscience and virtue. Thomas Aquinas is quoted as stating that, “no human being can become completely evil” (Curry 89).
Initially, it is easy to see all of Macbeth’s good virtues, but later after he has committed all of his evil acts, it becomes very difficult. It’s almost as if the evil takes over and becomes second nature to him, but not quite. Doing the evil acts is always difficult for him, and through it all he is able to maintain his conscience and some virtues. He never becomes completely evil because of his conscience, which causes a great deal of mental suffering. The good in him is never fully destroyed, and we hold admiration for him even up to the time of his death: “Macbeth’s language is the grave utterance of the very heart, conscience-sick, even to the last faintings of moral death” (Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher 230).
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