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William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth presents a title character who seems far more motivated by pride and by ambition for power than by a simple desire for money. This interest in being king, rather than in merely being rich, is implied, for instance, when Macbeth mentions
. . . happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.
Yet the Renaissance text that would have seemed most relevant to any and all of these motivations would have been the Bible, the most important book of the period. The Bible was known backwards and forwards by most intellectuals of the period, and it was the subject of countless sermons and of other forms of teaching that would have made its lessons very familiar to the general population, even those who could not read. Thus, the Bible (published in 1611 in English in the great “King James” translation, but available in a variety of English translations before then) would have been the source of many quotations that would have seemed highly relevant both to Macbeth the play and to Macbeth the character. Among those quotations are the following:
- Proverbs 16.18: "Pride goeth before destruction, and a high mind before the fall."
- Proverbs 29.23: "The pride of a man shall bring him low."
- Matthew 23.12: "For whosoever will exalt himself, shall be brought low."
These quotations seem especially relevant to Macbeth’s predicament, because pride was considered, by medieval and Renaissance Christians, the root of all sin. Such sins might include political ambition, an obsession with power, and excessive desire for money. All sins could be traced back to pride, which in this period was defined as selfishness, egocentricity, and arrogance. People guilty of pride (which is to say, all people, according to standard Christian teachings) place their own desires before the commands and teachings of God. They make themselves the centers of their own little universes, forgetting their small places in God’s larger plan. This is precisely what Macbeth does, less because he is greedy for money than because he is greedy for power. A simple knowledge of the Bible would have been enough to allow all of Shakespeare’s original audience to come to a very accurate understanding of both Macbeth and Macbeth.
PS: A useful web site dealing with the Bible's relevance to Macbeth can be found here: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/bibimagery.html
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