Exploring tyranny and power in Macbeth
We take a look at corruption and human nature in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy
Violent power struggle does not begin or end with the Macbeths. The play is couched in violence.
King Duncan’s reign has, after all, not been a peaceful one. In the gruesome description of ‘brave’ Macbeth’s heroics in battle, we are introduced to a violent world. A world in which loyalty and allegiance are up for grabs and any treacherous acts are decisively and emphatically punished in an effort to create order and maintain power. Macbeth is to reap a reward from such a punishment; the previous Thane of Cawdor is swiftly dispatched after straying from the fold, a ‘most disloyal traitor’.
Over the course of the play, many characters are left to question their allegiances and ponder their own deepest, darkest desires. Yet, fascinatingly, even in the midst of this savage world, we’re also aware of a moral compass within each of the characters. Some try to suppress it, whilst others desperately cling to it.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth talk of loyalty but are, we might think, astonishingly prepared to seize the moment by stabbing an old man to death in his bed. Lady Macbeth’s decisiveness in Act 1 Scene 5 is almost awe inspiring, whilst Macbeth’s descent into ‘hell-hound’ is fairly swift. We’re left wondering how often they might have talked through potential plots and schemes before the witches’ prophecy.
Nevertheless, these two go-getters grapple with their own humanity and it trips them up repeatedly. Lady Macbeth foresees this challenge after reading her husband’s letter: Macbeth is ‘too is full o’ the milk of human kindness’ and she calls on the supernatural world to help her suppress her own inherent goodness: ‘Fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!’ Even as the plan to kill the King is in motion, Lady Macbeth checks herself, moved by Duncan resembling ‘[her] father as he slept’. In Act 1 Scene 7, Macbeth too longs for a kind of conscience holiday where one can reap the benefits of a course of action without the agony of actually doing it. In this couple, Shakespeare has not given us a pair of psychopathic despots but a man and a woman struggling to keep their humanity at bay.
In this couple, Shakespeare has not given us a pair of psychopathic despots but a man and a woman struggling to keep their humanity at bay.
It’s not just the Macbeths experiencing inner turmoil. Banquo’s response to the witches is intriguing. He seems to scoff at his friend’s awe-struck reaction: ‘Good Sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?’ He then demands the weird sisters’ attention himself, claiming to ‘neither beg nor fear / Your favours nor your hate’. Is this detached skepticism authentic? Or is he, in fact, like Macbeth: susceptible to the stirrings of powerful ambition? We know that he dwells on what the witches have said to him.
After Duncan’s death, Banquo worries about what Macbeth might have done, before pondering his own potential rise. The witches’ words have set Banquo ‘up in hope’ and it’s ambiguous whether he would be prepared to take action and force Fate’s hand. Of course, the assassins ensure that we never find out. Was Macbeth right to fear him?
Malcolm, urged by Macduff to lead his country, is fearful of the dangerous tyrant within himself and almost manages to walk away from greatness, fearing that ‘Macbeth will seem as pure as snow and the poor state / Esteem him as a lamb, being compared / With my confineless harms.’ Ironically, it is Macduff’s very human suffering after his wife and children are ‘savagely slaughter’d’ that draws Malcom heartily into the fray. Now, Malcolm says, ‘the tune goes manly’. We have to hope at the end of the play that he proves to be a better leader than he fears he might be.
This is a world where the moral bar has been lowered; a world which ‘sinks beneath the yoke’. In the Macbeths, we see just how terribly the human soul can be corrupted. However, this struggle is played out within other characters too. Perhaps we’re left wondering: in such a dog-eat-dog world, how would we fare?