Essential Passage by Character: Macbeth

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1150

MACBETH:
[Aside.] 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:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
BANQUO:
Look, how our partner’s rapt.
MACBETH:
[Aside.] If chance will have me king, why, chance
may crown me
Without my stir.
BANQUO:
New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould
But with the aid of use.
MACBETH:
[Aside.] Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.
Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 141-162

Summary

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Macbeth, along with Banquo, has been visited by three witches who prophesy that Macbeth, now Thane of Glamis, will become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. Almost immediately, Ross and Angus, two Scottish nobles, arrive to inform Macbeth that the previous Thane of Cawdor has been captured and has forfeited his position through rebellion against King Duncan. The title thus falls to Macbeth as a reward for his services to the crown. Although Banquo initially has some doubts as to the validity of a prophecy from witches, the fulfillment is convincing. He is concerned, however, that it may be an instance of the powers of evil telling the truth in order to recruit a susceptible person to the side of darkness. Macbeth can see only that the witches speak truth, that the three-part prophecy is two-thirds of the way fulfilled.

As Banquo speaks privately to Ross and Angus, Macbeth in the passage above ponders the meaning of the prophecy. He is unsure about the nature of the words of the witches (“This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good”) and is thus in a completely gray area. If it is evil, why is he given assured success, verified by truth? He can see only one way that the remainder of the prophecy (i.e., his succeeding to the throne of Scotland) will come true, and that is through the death of King Duncan. That death, in Macbeth’s mind, can be accomplished by only one manner to assure that Macbeth is his heir: murder. Macbeth trembles at the thought that he must commit this murder. He momentarily sees that, if fate is willing for him to be king, then fate will handle the details without his stirring. However, if the opportunity presents itself through the machinations of fate, he would be wrong not to accept that opportunity.

Analysis

With the use of the aside in this passage, Shakespeare allows Macbeth to have a type of soliloquy, even with others present. The soliloquy presents the path of thought of the character, revealing his inner struggle with the choices that are presented to him. Soliloquies usually present a tipping point for the character. It is the decision that he makes that will decide the course of his life and thus whether the play becomes a tragedy (where the hero is defeated through a fatal flaw) or a comedy (where the hero achieves his goals or overcomes an obstacle to gain an even more honorable position).

Macbeth is at the threshold, the choice of whether to choose good or to choose evil. As the tragic hero, he has achieved through his own efforts great renown and acclaim. He has been honored by his country and his king. To rise to the level of the Thane of Cawdor gives him power, wealth, and respect. The fact that Macbeth rose to this level through the way of honor reflects strongly and positively on his character.

Yet he has now been presented with promise of more. The three witches simply tell him that he will be king. They do not tell him by what route he will arrive at the throne. The implication is that it is already decided, without any concentrated effort by Macbeth. Yet Macbeth is not willing to sit back and do nothing. He received the thaneship of Cawdor through his valor. He cannot contemplate receiving the throne through any other measure.

Although up until now Macbeth is presented as an honorable man, the revelation of his thinking process at this point reveals his fatal flaw. Through pride, through hubris, Macbeth cannot imagine that fate has more power than he. In a complete rejection of God or fate, Macbeth places himself on the throne of God, in the place of fate, and assumes control. He will reach his goal through the quickest, though not the most honorable, route: murder. Through this choice, Macbeth’s destruction is assured. In the very first act, then, the audience knows how the play will end.

So quickly does Macbeth fall that instead of just contemplating one murder, he is willing to commit more. King Duncan has named his oldest son, Malcolm, as his heir and successor to the throne. Macbeth knows that, in order to bring the prophecy to pass, Malcolm as well as Duncan must die. Malcolm must die in the same manner as his father—by the hand of Macbeth. Macbeth quickly accepts the desirability of this. Though unmentioned, Macbeth will also have to kill Donalbain, Duncan’s younger son and presumably the heir after Malcolm.

Macbeth demonstrates that once the line dividing good and evil has been crossed, it is quite easy to proceed deeper into evil. What would have horrified him before he was promised the throne now appears easy.

Macbeth’s religious views seem more pagan than Christian. His concept of “Divine Will” is closer to the ancient belief in “Wyd,” which means “Fate” or “Destiny.” This is an impersonal force that cannot be appealed to through prayer or sacrifice. It is simply what is. It is the Will of the Universe rather than the Will of God. In this light, Macbeth has no fear of divine retribution or punishment. His view is that he must carry out the will of Fate, by “fair means or foul.” To do less would be to displease Fate, leading to unimagined consequences. In this belief, the end justifies the means, a philosophy that, in the archetypal concept of the hero quest, leads swiftly to the destruction of the hero.

Such will be the fate of Macbeth, as well as those who come into contact with him. In the tale of the tragic hero, mere association will involve a person in defeat or destruction. The good and the bad, the innocent and the guilty, men and women and even children will die due to Macbeth’s decision to follow the road of evil.

Essential Passage by Theme: The Hero

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202

MACBETH:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other—
Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 1-28

Summary

King Duncan has triumphed over the attacks of the Norwegian troops, aided by the rebel Scots who are led by the previous Thane of Cawdor, Macdonwald. In celebration of his victory, as well as of the accession of Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor, Duncan proposes to honor Macbeth with a visit to his castle in Glamis. Macbeth goes ahead to prepare a feast, sending a letter to his wife of the coming company. Macbeth also relates to his wife the full extent of the three witches’ prophecy. Immediately she has jumped ahead of her husband and is more than willing to aid in the murder of the king so that Macbeth can take the throne. More corrupt that her husband, Lady Macbeth has completely sold her soul to evil without regret.

The same cannot now be said of Macbeth himself. He begins to have doubts, becoming somewhat shaky in his resolve. In the soliloquy quoted above, Macbeth contemplates the full extent of his actions. He hesitates, but he knows that if the murder is to be done, it would be best to do it quickly and get it over with. He believes that if Duncan’s assassination would result in complete success, without any consequences, he would be satisfied. But Macbeth now fears that to do so will put his eternal soul at risk, and he realizes that there are likely to be earthly consequences to Duncan’s assassination as well. Though Duncan is dead, Macbeth understands that not everyone will be happy that he, Macbeth, is now king. There may be other battles to fight.

Macbeth contemplates the many reasons why this deed is dishonorable. It is not a “simple” murder. First, Duncan is his kinsman, a near relation. It will be one step short of fratricide. Second, Duncan is his king, and Macbeth will thus be guilty of regicide. But more importantly, Duncan is his guest. Macbeth is bound to protect Duncan, not to murder him.

Macbeth admits that Duncan has been a most worthy king, has “borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office.” Duncan is not a tyrant (such as Macbeth will become) whose death will bring relief to the land. Because Duncan is so honorable, his death will bring great grief to the country and thus turn the popular opinion against Macbeth as his murderer. Macbeth admits that the only justification he has to commit this assassination is his own “vaulting ambition,” knowing that he may jump too far and suffer undesirable consequences.

Analysis

In the archetypal hero tale, the hero is presented with two opportunities, two thresholds, to choose good over evil. In the first one, the hero typically refuses evil, choosing to remain true to his honor. Macbeth did not quite turn away at his first opportunity following the encounter with the three witches. In this scene, he is handed by fate another chance to turn back. Macbeth has a much clearer view of the consequences of his actions than he manifested at his first threshold. Rather than living in a delusion, Macbeth clearly and logically analyzes the full ramifications of the assassination. He knows the consequences, both in terms of his soul and in terms of his status as king. He is not acting in ignorance. He is fully aware of the price he will pay to take fate in his own hands to fulfill what has been presented to him as his destiny.

Macbeth presents himself as a rather weak hero. His bravery is high when he is in the company of other warriors, yet he begins to weaken in the presence, and under the domination, of his wife. It is she who has the stronger resolve, though it be for evil. It is she who must hold up her husband, pushing him to commit the deed that, in his own weakness, he now has difficulty contemplating. It is only through her despising this shakiness that he garners the strength enough to kill Duncan. Yet, as events will show, it breaks him mentally, much sooner than it does his wife.

The characterization of Macbeth in connection with his spiritual views is a bit inconsistent at this point. Rather than believe in fate, he begins to see that actions have consequences, both in the temporal and eternal realm. He finally reflects on the status of his soul and asks himself, “Is becoming king worth eternal damnation?” The inconsistency of his view of spirituality makes this question difficult for him to answer. As with all tragic heroes, Macbeth struggles with the concept presented by Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Unsure of what the afterlife brings, Macbeth leans more toward holding earthly glory as of greater worth than whatever comes after death.

Macbeth would be willing to risk eternal damnation if he could “do the deed” without further earthly consequences. He knows that he will be king, but he also realizes that, through this act, he would be an unpopular king. Duncan was greatly loved, ruling nobly. To kill such a beloved ruler would bring the condemnation not only of God but of the country as well. Macbeth’s willingness to face this unpopularity shows exactly what kind of power he desires. His definition of power is not a power to do good to others, but only to himself. The concept of “noblesse oblige” is foreign to him. His only spur is “vaulting ambition,” an allusion to horseback riding. This horse, this power invested in the throne, will carry him far but is also liable to “o’erleap” itself, throwing its “rider” (Macbeth) off. Macbeth knows he will pay dearly to achieve and maintain the throne. His decision as a hero is whether or not it is worth the price.

Essential Passage by Character: Macbeth

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042

SEYTON:
The Queen, my lord, is dead.
MACBETH:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 18-30

Summary

Macbeth is battling desperately for his throne and his kingdom. Lady Macbeth, succumbing at last to madness, has committed suicide, the stain of sin having eaten away at her mind. In a sleepwalking episode, she has effectively confessed to her and her husband’s crime. She who had been his strength and prod to seek his evil ambition is gone. Macbeth now is almost completely alone, isolated from all manner of support. He is facing a rebellion, brought on by his own tyranny.

Macbeth at this point is also still clinging to the additional prophecies of the three witches: that none born of woman shall harm him, and that he shall not be conquered until “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” Neither is likely to happen, thinks Macbeth, so he is confident of victory despite the overwhelming odds. Yet his sanity is shaky in the quoted passage, and he numbly accepts the news that his wife is dead.

“She should have died hereafter,” is all he says about his wife, completely emotionless. But with her death, he feels the full weight of the world that he has brought upon himself. The passage of time drags, one day after the other until the end. His past victories and successes have done little but “light the way of fools to dusty death.” He wishes life to be over and makes the allusion that it is a mere fiction, a play, with a lot of noise and emotion, but without eternal meaning.

Analysis

The end is near for Macbeth. Although the initial prophecy of the three witches has been fulfilled (i.e., that Macbeth would be king), it was clear and straightforward, devoid of any subtle shades of meaning. The later prophecies are not so. In the manner of the Oracle of Delphi, these prophecies are vague, needing interpretation and circumspection if one intends to base actions on them. Yet Macbeth takes the prophecies at face value, and by being so literal, he has blinded himself to any other interpretation. He has wagered his kingdom on this inadequate interpretation, and he is going to lose the bet.

Guilt has now completely blinded him to reality, especially the manner in which his actions will affect that reality. He has paid all to gain the throne: not only has he murdered Duncan, he has killed the two guards, and Banquo’s wife and children, along with all the warriors whose lives will be lost in the upcoming battle. He has a heavy blood price on his hands, hands that he has not been able to wash clean.

Macbeth has even sacrificed his love for his wife. He is completely emotionless on learning of her death, saying coldly, “It were better if she had died hereafter.” Whether the meaning of this statement is that she should have waited to die later, once the outcome is sure, or whether he means that she had to die sometime, Macbeth demonstrates that he no longer is human. He is the incarnation of evil ambition.

The repetition of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” gives the audience the feeling of the relentless passing of time to the diseased mind of Macbeth. Each moment is unrelenting boredom, if not agony, to him because life has become totally meaningless. Macbeth is the ultimate nihilist in this speech. He has achieved his ambition of power and discovered that it was nothing. He has sold his soul to evil and has received nothing. He has lost power, home, and family, but he feels nothing.

Shakespeare’s allusion to life as a play is a motif he uses frequently, one that makes a quick connection with the Elizabethan play-going audience of the day. In the manner of drama at the time, the extensive use of props was not used. No curtains signified the end and beginning of scenes. The simple entrance and exits of actors on stage kept the action going. Such is Macbeth’s allusion to life as a “walking shadow” and a man as a “poor player,” both in the sense that he has little respect in the larger community of the time and little control over his own actions. A man walks onto the stage of life, says his lines, then walks off and is “heard no more.” Moreover, it is not even a good play, an intriguing play, an inspiring play. It is a “tale told by an idiot.” Whether he is referring to man himself, to fate, or to God is unclear. A life may look impressive, “full of sound and fury,” but in the end it is “signifying nothing.”

Following this soliloquy, Macbeth learns the true meaning of the prophecies. Soldiers holding tree branches in front of them to hide their limited number appear to be “Great Birnam Wood” coming to “high Dunsinane Hill.” At this he finally realizes that he has misinterpreted the latter prophecies. He is prepared for defeat at the hands of Macduff, who was born by caesarian section, thus not technically “born of woman.”

Macbeth’s defeat is total, leaving a legacy behind that is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” His pride and “vaulting ambition” have been his fatal flaws, thus leading to his tragic end. There is no remorse left in the hearts of the audience for this hero. Macbeth has won no moral victory over greater evil, as may be said in the case of Hamlet. Macbeth is the greatest villain of the play. His death does not bring any level of redemption to his life. It is one of utter and tragic defeat, without honor.

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