In Shakespeare's Macbeth, why is Macbeth's mind in such turmoil?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is a great warrior that first the audience encounters in the character of Macbeth; however, his struggles between spirit and the flesh are at the core of his turmoil. For, in Act I, he is first heralded as a magnificent warrior, fearless and formidable.

--But, Macbeth is seduced by the supernatural in the forms of the "three sisters," whose predictions both seduce and frighten Macbeth:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth?  I am Thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, 
Against the use of nature? Present fears 
Are less than horrible imaginings. (1.3.141-149)

Macbeth falls prey to the witches' prophesies that he will be Thane of Cawdor and then king, ignoring the warnings of Banquo, instead believing that reality and fantasy are equal:  "nothing is/But what is not."

--Lady Macbeth's cupidity acts as a force to influence Macbeth as she challenges his manhood when he has misgivings against murdering Duncan so that he can be king. Added to the murder is also the upsetting of the Chain of Being which places kings as semi-divine monarchs. Macbeth struggles against his conscience, but recognizes that his "Vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself" is too strong. So, when Macbeth kills a king, he unleashes evil.

--Because of his evil deeds and his inner conflicts, Macbeth guilts and fears cause him great turmoil. After he kills Duncan, Macbeth feels that he "hath murdered sleep" [meaning peace]. Once he has murdered Duncan, he now has Banquo to fear, and his "black and evil desires" motivate him to murder again. He also believes that if he can hide his malicious deeds and fulfill the prophesies of the witches, he will be all right; therefore, when he learns that Banquo's son Fleance has escaped, Macbeth feels a "fit" come upon him and Banquo's ghost appears. It is this flaw in his plan as Fleance lives that has left Macbeth "cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in to saucy doubts and fears (3.4.23-24).

--Macbeth's turmoil increases as he grows increasingly suspicious and paranoiac. In the phantasmagoric realm of witchcraft, madness, and insomnia when Lacy Macbeth dies of her terrible guilt, having hallucinated that there is blood on the stairs, Macbeth senses the shifting of things seen and unseen and is in further emotional turmoil. For, he senses the meaninglessness of life once his wife dies--

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word....
...It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (3.5.19-30)

--After Lady Macbeth's death, his relationship with the future becomes as though it has already happened. For instance, he tells Macduff "My soul is too much charged/With blood of thine already," and once he sees Birnam Wood moving, Macbeth gives words to his own moral turpitude and death,

I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf (5.3.22-23)

The predictions of the three witches come true and the mentally-tormented Macbeth falls to Malcolm.

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billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It seems as though Shakespeare liked to create characters whose minds were "in a turmoil." His four greatest plays are generally agreed to be King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. Lear suffers mental torture because of the way his two daughters have deceived him, have actually made a fool of him, and also because he feels such remorse for having disowned Cordelia, the one daughter who really loved him. Hamlet shows his mental turmoil in his many soliloquies. He is obligated to assassinate Claudius, and yet he can't bring himself to do the deed because his addiction to philosophizing and moralizing and procrastinating keep him from acting. He can't even understand himself. He is also deeply troubled by what he considers the adulterous marriage of Gertrude to Claudius. For some time he is further troubled by the question of whether the ghost was really his father or the devil in disguise, which of course involves the question of whether or not Claudius murdered his father. Othello is troubled by his suspicions of Desdemona. Even when he is murdering his wife he is torn between love and hatred. And as far as Macbeth is concerned, he is torn between ambition and loyalty. Later he is consumed by guilt and remorse.

In another famous Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar, Brutus is "in a mental turmoil" for reasons resembling those of Hamlet and Macbeth. Brutus is being goaded into taking the lead in an assassination plot against Caesar, and yet he loves Caesar and has received nothing but kindness from his good friend. In fact, Brutus might also be compared to Othello, because Brutus is killing someone he loves. It is probably significant that he is the last of all the conspirators to stab Caesar. No doubt Brutus still has misgivings right up to the time he strikes the final blow.

Shakespeare seemed to like creating characters who had internal rather than external problems. This may have been because he thought the characters would seem more realistic if they were more psychologically complex. Such characters also contribute to the dramatic interest of the play because nobody can predict what they are going to do. As viewers, we can identify with these men because we ourselves are continually faced with problems we don't know how to resolve. In many cases we never do resolve them; we just go on to new ones. Or maybe we see the solution to one of our former problems long after it is no longer a problem. Life itself is a problem.

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parama9000's profile pic

parama9000 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Macbeth is a tragedy written by Shakespeare.

A tragedy happens when the protagonist's flaws cause him to make a serious mistake or error, which leads to certain inner conflicts within self.

In this case, the error resulted in Macbeth's killing of King Duncan.

rachellopez's profile pic

rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Macbeth is a play about the murder of King Duncan and how Macbeth is driven mad with guilt. Shakespeare included spiritual aspects in the play like the three witches and other spirits.

First off, the three witches tell Macbeth a prophecy that he will become king. Macbeth ends up killing the king. He then becomes guilty and fearful, afraid of his "evil desires". Him and Lady Macbeth hallucinate and lose all peace. Lady Macbeth eventually dies because of her guilt, and Macbeth lived in fear that the prophecy would come true.

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