How does Macbeth explore the nature of evil?

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luannw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth is all about evil and ambition.  A central question of the play may be:  how much power and influence did the witches have?  Did the witches just see in Macbeth, a character flaw - boundless ambition - or did they make him ambitious with their powers?  In Act 1, sc. 5, Lady Macbeth says, upon reading her husband's letter telling her about the Weird Sisters and their prophecy, that Macbeth is ambitious, but he lacks the necessary evil to allow his ambitions full reign.  Lady Macbeth then, in Act 1, sc. 7, uses her influence to convince her husband to kill Duncan.  She tells him that he's a coward and is unmanly if he doesn't do it.  It seems that Lady Macbeth has far more power over her husband than the witches do.  Later in the play, when Macbeth has Banquo killed, then he has Macduff's family killed, it seeems that it is Macbeth acting alone with no help from his wife or the witches.  By Act 5, Macbeth is completely alone since his wife has gone mad and then kills herself.  He is desperate, paranoid, and determined to fight to the end.  Whether or not everything began with the witches' prophecies in Act 1, sc. 3, is unclear.  Macbeth gives a startled response when he is hailed as "...King hereafter".  Banquo says, "Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?" Is it possible that Macbeth has thought about being king and to hear his innermost thoughts brought out by the Weird Sisters causes him to react?  If so, then the evil nature already exists in Macbeth and the idea is all the witches plant in Macbeth.  He acts on the idea and allows himself to be manipulated by his wife and by the witches.  The idea that evil resides in people is a common one.  In Lord of the Flies, Golding expresses this idea, adding that it is only the restrictions of society that keeps the evil in check in most people. Perhaps this is what is going on with Macbeth.  He kept his evil ideas hidden until the witches brought his thoughts out into the open.  That allowed the evil out and it grew.

coachingcorner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the play "MacBeth" by William Shakespeare, the author explores the many facets of evil and in particular whether evil emantes from within or is engendered by association and environment. For example, MacBeth says "O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife." He could either mean that he was born with evil thoughts and an evil nature, or that someone (the "weird sisters" or witches) has planted them there. The seeds of evil, once planted, are watered and nurtured by Lady MacBeth and by MacBeth himself. It could be that he has had a traumatic environment and upbringing which has damaged him so that he is unable to feel empathy for others - or that the evil is innate. MacBeth displays some very evil characteristics - selfishness, coldness, obsession and cold-blooded murderous intent. Shakespeare explores the degree to which he alone is responsible, and how far others contribute to the evil.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The downward spiral into a moral abyss and quagmire that Macbeth enters represents a strong statement about the nature of evil.  Once Macbeth commits his first murder, Shakespeare wisely points out that evil is all consuming and much more difficult to stop.  The line being crossed, the frontier being explored, there is little that can restrain Macbeth from becoming increasingly evil, more lost in his moral quagmire.  This helps to highlight the nature of evil, as something to which it is easy to succumb and difficult to find release once that demarcation has been crossed.  In this light, there is a strong statement being made about the nature of evil.  This does not absolve Macbeth of any responsibility, but rather highlights how we, as readers, can learn from his predicament.

kc4u | Student

Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare's greatest exploration of the problem of evil. The implications about evil that come out of the play, according to me, are---

1. Evil is positioned both within and without. The witches are objective figures alright but Macbeth's first utterance in act 1, scene 3 suggests that he has an uncanny proximity of thought with the witches. When he says that he has never seen such a fair and a foul day, he seems to echo the maxim of the witches--"Fair is foul foul is fair". This is before his encounter with the witches. This is an unconscious figuration of the evil as repressed in human psyche which is surfaced through the temptations of objective evil. So, evil is not just supernatural, but human too.

2. Shakespeare's masterful implication lies in the way he relates evil to language. There is an evil of equivocation, that is championed by the witches. Their speech is full of riddles, contradictions and menacing redundancies that give false support to the ego and create the complacency of invincibility. The prophecies tell Macbeth that no one born of the woman can kill him and he is made to think that he is immortal. At the end, it is revealed that Macduff, his executioner, is untimely ripped from his mother's womb. This is how an apparently absurd conditioning comes true to menace Macbeth.

3. There is justice in the name of retribution as a response to all evil and it will always happen in course of the life where the sin is committed. This is what Macbeth's soliloquy spells out at the end of act 1.

4. Evil is above all an act against the natural, the norm of the macrocosm as well as the microcosm. Evil is imposition. It is an artifice, a garb of sorts. Evil drives Macbeth into murdering the innocence of sleep while Lady Macbeth loses her innate gender identity, her feminine qualities in charge of evil.

5. As the fair-foul maxim goes, the play presents to us evil in all its grey shades--the mutually interchangeable nature of good and evil as a critique of the morality play simplicity of the divide.

6. There is ethical thought even in the evil-doing subject, as we see its course in Macbeth, especially the Macbeth before the murder. The stoic ethics comes back in the 'tomorrow and tomorrow'  speech with all its admitting dignity of tragic suffering. Lady Macbeth in her sleep-walking scene, once again returns to disturbing ethical questions about what really happened.

tweety843 | Student

Macbeth explore the nature of evilbecause he is all about evil and ambition alsoin act 1, sc. 5, lady macbeth says, upon reading her husband's letter telling her about hte weird sisters and thier prophecy, that macbeth is ambitious, but lacks the evil to allow his ambition for full regon.