Is there any quotation from the era when William Shakepeare's Macbeth was written that seems relevant to the idea that money and power reveal true character?

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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.




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Are there any quotations from the era of William Shakespeare that relate to the gothic as well as to the themes of money and power in Macbeth?

“Gothic literature” is usually a term applied to dark, bleak, even frightening and bizarre literature written long after William Shakespeare had died, but it is possible to think of many examples of English Renaissance art that might be described as “gothic.” Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a good example of such literature, as are many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, especially Hamlet.

One tradition in English Renaissance culture that might be described (in a very loose sense) as “gothic” was the “memento mori” tradition. This tradition seems relevant to Macbeth is a number of ways.  The term “memento mori ” means “Remember your death.” People in the Renaissance...

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were constantly being reminded to remember the fact that they were mortal creatures and that they should therefore live their lives meaningfully and virtuously. Life was short, death was inevitable, and punishment for sin would inevitably follow death.

The “memento mori” tradition often involved confronting humans with physical symbols of death. Often, for instance, paintings showed beautiful women contemplating skulls. This common motif was intended to remind anyone viewing the painting of the “skull beaneath the skin”: All physical beauty vanishes; no one should take pride in any aspect of the flesh. Skeletons were a common feature of Renaissance art, intended to remind viewers that there is no escaping the grave or the rapid putrefaction of the body. The title character in Hamlet famously picks up a skull and contemplates death. The title character in Macbeth actually becomes not much more than a skull by the very end of the play. When Macbeth’s severed head is brought on stage at the conclusion of the play, Shakespeare is participating in the “memento mori” tradition. A few lines before the end of the play, Macduff, contemplating Macbeth’s severed head, says,

. . . behold, where stands  The usurper's cursed head . . .

Shakespeare’s audience would clearly have understood the symbolic significance of this moment. The fact that Macbeth’s bloody head is displayed onstage is evidence that power and money count for nothing in the face of death. As the English poet Philip Larkin reminds us, no one escapes the grave, no matter how rich or how powerful. People in Shakespeare’s day, who were highly familiar with the Bible, would have had no trouble recalling the passage from Ecclesiasticus 7:40 that reads "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin." This, unfortunately, was a lesson Macbeth ignored, thus leading to the grimly gothic conclusion of Shakespeare’s play.

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Are there any quotations from the era of William Shakespeare that relate to the economic as well as to the themes of money and power in Macbeth?

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth is much more interested in becoming king (a result of his tragic flaw: vaulting ambition) than in attaining money.

There are several instances were rewards are heaped upon Macbeth and even his wife, but with the titles and jewels, Macbeth is still not satisfied. When he becomes the Thane of Cawdor, it is not just the title he receives, but all that the traitorous Cawdor owned.


No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive

Our bosom interest. Go pronounce his present death,

And with his former title greet Macbeth...

...What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won. (I.ii.73-76, 78)

In Act One, scene seven, Macbeth has a change of heart: he is having second thoughts about killing Duncan. Besides the lands and title Duncan has bestowed on him, Macbeth has been praised and is highly thought of in the King's court. Macbeth enjoys the feeling, and has no desire to move forward. He speaks not at all about money, but "golden opinions:"


We will proceed no further in this business:

He hath honor'd me of late, and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

Not cast aside so soon. (34-38)

Soon after, in Act Two, scene one, after the King has retired, we learn from Banquo that Duncan has been very generous with both Macbeth's officers and even Lady Macbeth, giving her a diamond and praising (ironically) her fine hospitality.


He hath been in unusual pleasure and

Sent forth great largess to your offices:

This diamond he greets your wife withal,

By the name of most kind hostess... (15-18)

For all the talk of reward, Macbeth—and even Lady Macbeth—have spoken not about getting money, for Duncan has already been very generous. Both husband and wife looks towards the power that being King and Queen will bring them. Power was a common concern in the 15th Century.

Christopher Marlowe was another dramatist in Elizabethan England. One of the themes of Marlowe's play, Dr. Faustus, is that of "social mobility," or being able to improves one's social standing. For someone born of lowly station, moving socially upward did not only allow one to associate with a better class of people, but also to have more wealth and power. Whereas money was desirable, power was that on which everything else depended.

The drive of the Elizabethan gentry to gain power and wealth is commented on by Marlowe's writing.

In scene five of Dr. Faustus, Faustus wants Mephistophilis's spell book so that he might have all: power, money, etc. Faustus wants more than he has: he wants to be powerful like the servant of Lucifer. While he might benefit from money, power will guarantee Faustus money and more.


Thanks, Mephistophilis: yet fain would I have a

book wherein I might behold all spells and incantations,

that I might raise up spirits when I please.


Here they are, in this book. (174-177)

In light of the fact that Shakespeare's work in many ways overshadows the works of other writers, there seems to be more poetry about love and life than serious dramas that deal with power and money. This was a time of rebirth in the arts, and entertainment was in great demand. Marlowe, Jonson and Kyd were popular writers of the time; Kyd alone was more likely concerned with themes of power and money in The Spanish Tragedy.

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