In Macbeth, does the Art of War apply to Macbeth as a character?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While much of The Art of War is not applicable to Macbeth because he is not a general engaged in a war with an army, there are certain points made by Sunzi which do apply to Macbeth as an antagonist to those who impede his path to power. Here are some of those points:

I. "Laying Plans"

  • Sunzi's point that war leads to either "safety or to ruin" certainly holds true as Macbeth's overweening ambition for power leads to a ceaseless shifting succession of things seen and unseen, causing insomnia, madness, and, finally, death--clearly a path to ruin. Lady Macbeth and he both see apparitions, they become confused about what is real and what is not, and they are overcome by guilt and paranoia to the point that it causes their ruin, their ultimate deaths.

III. "Attack by Stratagem"

The skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting...." Macbeth's murderous deeds eliminate any fighting. After having become king with the murder of Duncan, Macbeth hears in a vision given him by the witches of other threats to him. When he learns of the flight to England of Macduff, he knows also the importance of swiftness as he orders the death of anyone in Macduff's line:

Seize upon Fife: give to th'edge 'th'sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate soul
That trace him in his line....(4.1)

  • "He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared." Macbeth and Lady Macbeth always try to eliminate their enemies when they do not suspect them.  Macbeth's ordering of the murder of Banquo is an example.

IV. "Tactical Disposition"

In this section, Sunzi notes that a tactical and clever fighter "excels in winning with ease. Hence, his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom or courage."  Macbeth demonstrates victory through murder, an act that leads to his being called a "tyrant" and being assasinated; he dies with no reputation for admirable qualities.

  • "Though the enemy may be stronger, we may prevent him from fighting." Macbeth succeeds at this through assassination; however, in the final act he is vanquished by Malcolm and Macduff's armies.

VI. "Weak Points and Strong"

  • Sunzi advises that the general "march swiftly to places you are not expected." Of course, Macbeth and his doppelganger wife plans always include the element of surprise although it is Macbeth who is surprised by Macduff's having fled to England in Act IV.
  • "Rouse him [the enemy] and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself." In the final act as Macduff and Malcolm attack Macbeth he refuses to be like the defeated Romans, who fall upon their own swords. Instead, he decides that as long as he sees living men, "the gashes/Do better upon them"--he will fight and force them to reveal themselves.

X. "Terrain"

When Macbeth thinks that he sees Birnam Wood moving, he knows that he is defeated because of the prediction of the witches. It is an impassable position for him.

XIII. "The Use of Spies"

Sunzi notes that the "good general has foreknowledge" and learns as much as he can about his enemies.Macbeth employs spies and he consults with the preternatural world of the "three sisters" who foretell the future for him.  With this foreknowledge, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth advance upon their murderous path to power.

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