In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a trio of witches predicts that Macbeth will be made king of Scotland. Despite his own doubts as to this prophecy, his wife, Lady Macbeth, schemes with him to kill the current king, Duncan, so that he can take the throne. He simply follows the orders of his wife blindly, even though she is clearly interested only in her own ascent to power. In this essay, we will explore the idea that Macbeth could have taken different actions, and that the result of his own activity leads to a play that is quite difficult to watch or read. It also creates characters that cannot be empathized with, due to their incredible selfishness and shortsightedness. All of this hinges on a witch-centric fantasy prophecy that the characters act on without really needing any original thought or protestation of their own.
Lady Macbeth is an interesting, if abrasive and unfriendly, character. She clearly is the power behind Macbeth, as he is too cowardly to make decisions on his own, whereas she is confident in her own choices. “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” says she, equating her status as a woman with the murder she is about to be an accessory to (I.v.45-46). It is a very strange situation, and one that is a bit hard to follow, and more than a little implausible – Lady Macbeth turns out to be a bit of a one-dimensional character in this sense.
Despite Macbeth’s ultimate decision to kill Duncan, he still regrets the decision and beats himself up about it. He immediately asks, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” (II.ii.58-59). In this way, his constant waffling from his decision continues long after the deed has been done. While some may think this is an interesting portrayal of guilt, it merely makes him look weak and ineffectual, even when he performs a permanent action of that magnitude.
Macbeth constantly waffles between killing Duncan and not killing Duncan; while he wants to be king and follow his wife’s instructions, he believes that “We still have judgement here, that we but teach bloody instructions which, being taught, return to plague th’inventor” (I.vii.8-10). In this case, whatever he does will come back to haunt him, and he knows it. And yet, he still does this anyway, instead of taking the safer and more plausible route.
Eventually he is killed by MacDuff through a frightfully implausible loophole in the witches’ prophecy; he could not be killed by any man born of woman, but MacDuff was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped,” and therefore did not count towards who could not kill him (V.viii.15-16). With that in mind, he easily wins and simply beheads Macbeth. This, while being a tragic ending for the character, does not see Macbeth undone by his own ambition, but by a magic loophole that robs it of all dramatic merit and weight.
There are many different perspectives on Macbeth, and people find many unique ways of defending the implausibility of the play. There are those who see it as a study of a tragic figure who did not know what he was getting into (Open Shakespeare, 2011). However, due to the actions of Lady Macbeth, and his own status as a strong leader, he should have been able to see what he was doing, and been able to make an informed decision without being pushed to it by shrewish, power-hungry wives and prophecy.
The witches prove to be a particular problem – they are far from realistic, and lie outside the rest of the play’s fairly grounded realism. The injection of magic into the world of the natural makes it that much more jarring, and it takes away from the strength of Macbeth’s potential desire to be king. It would have been much more interesting if Macbeth actually wanted the throne, and did not have to be told he would be king by witches in order to want to kill Duncan. This way, he is held completely accountable for his actions, and he must go through that dilemma with the audience. As it stands now, so many forces are working against him to perform this murder that it never feels like Macbeth’s decision, making it harder to empathize with him (Leimberg, 2002).
One could argue that Macbeth was too ambitious, and that is why he killed Duncan; however, he was already highly ranked in the Scottish nobility, and had everything he wanted. Killing Duncan posed too great a risk to his existing livelihood to reasonably throw it away; therefore, it was difficult to side with him, or explain away his actions through the use of prophecy or witches. He should not have wanted to put himself in danger like that when he already had everything he ever wanted (Johnston, 1999).
According to Shakespeare, life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (V.v.25-27). This is an interesting idea, but one I think is far too dismissive of the overall quality of life in general. We can inject whatever meaning we can into it, and I do not feel as though Shakespeare explores this idea sufficiently. Frankly, the lives of these characters were told by idiots, because many of them make quite unreasonable decisions over the course of the play. Lady Macbeth wishes to have his husband kill the king, a position which could (and does) get him in substantial trouble.
In conclusion, many changes should have been made to ground Shakespeare’s Macbeth and keep it more within the realm of logical human behavior. Far too many people behave out of blind superstition and prophecy as to be believable, and the existence of witches to drive the story leads it to become a fantasy tale which is incredibly hard to relate to. The characters’ actions do not get explored to a sufficient level, and they needed better motivation than “a witch made them do it.” If there were no witches, it would have been an interesting portrayal of what one man does to get power, not act on a witches’ spell.
Johnston, Ian. “Introduction to Macbeth.” Studies in Shakespeare. Vancouver Island University. Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. 1 July 1999. Lecture.
“John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Modern Criticism and Critical Controversies.” Open Shakespeare. N.p., 2 May 2011. Web. 23 May 2011.
Leimberg, Inge. “Shakespeare De-witched: A Response to Stephen Greenblatt.” Connotations 11.1 (2002): 60-77. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The tragedy of Macbeth; . [Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954. Print.