Mans’ Struggle with Political Power
Mr. Guttormsen 1st Period
December 4, 2017
William Shakespeare’s drama The Tragedy of Macbeth focuses on political power, and how it affects men who gain it, through the evolution of Macbeth. Written in a time of great political change in England, Shakespeare shares his potentially controversial views on power with his audience. One of the important themes in Macbeth is the idea of political legitimacy, of the moral authority that some kings possess and others lack. What makes Duncan a good king? What makes Macbeth a tyrant? Based on the changes Macbeth undergoes in the play, it is clear that Shakespeare feels that the power of a monarch cannot go unchecked, even as the idea of divine right was expanding in his time.
In this tragedy, Shakespeare explores what makes an ideal monarch. He provides three different examples of how one can choose to fill this role with Duncan, Macbeth, and Malcom. The main theme of Macbeth, the destruction created when ambition goes unchecked by moral limits, finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and advancement, rooted in the prophecy given to him in act one. Three witches exclaim “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter! … Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none. So all hail, Macbeth” (1.3.53; 70-71) upon meeting him. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a frantic, boastful madman. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts. One of Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murder’s aftermath, but she is eventually driven to distraction by the effect of Macbeth’s repeated bloodshed on her conscience. 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; (1.7.16-20). In each case, ambition—helped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the witches—is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne—Banquo, Fleance, Macduff—and it is always tempting to use violent means to dispose of them.
After Duncan’s death, the nobles of Scotland begin to grumble among themselves about what they perceive as Macbeth’s tyrannical behavior. Evidence of Shakespeare’s own political agenda can be found, such as giving his compliments to King Edward when a lord informs Macbeth that Malcom “Lives in the English court and is received/ Of the most pious Edward with such grace /That the malevolence of fortune nothing /Takes from his high respect” (3.6.28-31)/ When Macduff meets Malcolm in England, Malcolm pretends that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth in order to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland. The bad qualities he claims to possess include lust, greed, and a chaotic and violent temperament. These qualities all seem characteristic of Macbeth, whereas Duncan’s universally lauded reign was marked by the king’s kindness, generosity, and stabilizing presence. The king must be able to keep order and should reward his subjects according to their merits. For example, Duncan makes Macbeth thane of Cawdor after Macbeth’s victory over the invaders. Perhaps the most important quality of a true king to emerge in Malcolm’s conversation with Macduff is loyalty to Scotland and its people above oneself. Macbeth wishes to be king to gratify his own desires, while Duncan and Malcolm wear the crown out of love for their nation.
Additionally, manhood, for most of the characters in Macbeth, is tied to ideals of strength, power, physical courage, and force of will; it is rarely tied to ideals of intelligence or moral strength. At several points in the play, the characters push one another into action by questioning each other’s manhood. Most significantly, Lady Macbeth weakens her husband repeatedly, knowing that in his desperation to prove his manhood he will perform the acts she wishes him to perform. Macbeth echoes Lady Macbeth’s words when he questions the manhood of the murderers he has hired to kill Banquo, and after Macduff’s wife and children are killed, Malcolm urges Macduff to take the news with manly detachment and to devote himself to the destruction of Macbeth, his family’s murderer. Ultimately, there is a strong idea that manhood is tied to cruelty and violence, as shown in Lady Macbeth’s when she asks “Come, you spirits /That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.” (1.5. 47-50) so that she can support her husband in the murder of King Duncan. Yet, at the same time, the audience is clearly meant to realize that women provide the push that sets the bloody action of the play in motion. Macduff, too, suggests that the equation of masculinity with cruelty is not quite correct. His comments show that he believes emotion and reflection are also important attributes of the true man.
Macbeth is set in a society in which the notion of honor to one’s word and loyalty to one’s superiors is absolute. Based on the changes Macbeth undergoes in the play, it is clear that Shakespeare feels that the power of a monarch cannot go unchecked, as the main theme of Macbeth is the destruction created when ambition goes unchecked by moral limits,. To conclude, William Shakespeare’s drama The Tragedy of Macbeth focuses on political power, and how it affects men who gain it through the evolution of Macbeth.
The History of Parliament Trust. Parliament and Politicts from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I: 1509-1603. n.d. Article. 6 December 2017.
Editors, Biography.com. Macbeth. 2 April 2014. Webpage. 5 December 2017.