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Free Macbeth Essays Themes

The plot of Macbeth is set in motion ostensibly by the prophecy of the three witches. The prophecy fans the flames of ambition within Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, serving as the primary impetus for the couple to plot the death of Duncan--and subsequently Banquo. But one also wonders: Would Macbeth have committed such heinous crimes if not for the prophecy? What if he had ignored the witches’ statements? Such speculation, however interesting, ultimately appears futile, since the prophecy itself is self-fulfilling. The witches know Macbeth’s tragic flaw: given the irresistible temptation to become King, he will choose to commit murder even though he could simply discard their words. As it turns out, the prophecies are not only fated but fatal, as Macbeth's confidence in the witches leads him to fight a rash battle in the final act.

Some of the most famous and poetic lines from Macbeth are expressions of remorse. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” exclaims Macbeth after he stabs Duncan (II ii 58-59). Similarly, Lady Macbeth is plagued by a “spot” that she cannot remove from her hand: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say. . . What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (V I 30-37). At first physical remainders of a regrettable crime, the royal blood leaves permanent marks on the psyche of the couple, forever staining them with guilt and remorse. The different ways in which the Macbeths cope with their crimes show how their characters develop: whereas Lady Macbeth is initially the one without scruples, urging Macbeth to take action, it is an overpowering sense of guilt and remorse that drives the Lady to her untimely death. Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to overcome the guilt that plagues him early on in the play.

Just as an overwhelming guilty conscience drives Lady Macbeth mad, so too does Macbeth’s “heat-oppressed” brain project the vision of a dagger before he murders Duncan (II i 39). In what concerns ghosts and visions, the relation of the natural to the supernatural in Macbeth is unclear. The three apparitions that the witches summon, for example, are usually taken to be “real”—even if only as supernatural occurrences. But the matter is less clear when it comes to Banquo’ ghost. Macbeth is the only one who sees the ghost in a crowded room; is this yet another projection of his feverish mind? Or is it really, so to speak, a supernatural occurrence? Such ambiguities contribute to the eerie mood and sense of uncanniness that pervade the play, from the very opening scene with the three bearded witches.

If the witches’ prophecy is understood to be imposing a supernatural order on the natural order of things, the natural order can also be understood as responding with tempestuous signs. Following Duncan’s death, Lennox describes the “unruly” night in some detail. Similarly, Ross notes that “the heavens, as troubled with man’s act, / Threatens his bloody stage” (II iv 5-6). In the same scene, the Old Man and Ross both agree that they saw horses eat each other. Even the events leading to the conclusion of the play can be understood as a negotiation of the natural and supernatural. Whereas Macbeth believes that he will live the “lease of nature”—since Birnam Wood cannot possible come to Dunsinane Hill—the forest is literally uprooted by the English army in accordance with the prophecy. The dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural forms a backdrop that suggests the epic proportions of the struggle over the Scottish crown.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (I i 10-11). The first scene of the first act ends with these words of the witches, which Macbeth echoes in his first line: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I iii 36). In a similar fashion, many scenes conclude with lines of dichotomy or equivocation: “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or hell” (II i64); “God’s benison go with you, and with those/ That would make good of bad, and friends of foes” (II iv 41-42). Such lines evoke an air of deep uncertainty: while polarities are reversed and established values are overturned, it is entirely unclear as to whether the dichotomous clarity of “heaven or hell” trumps the equivocatory fogginess of “fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Thus, for Macbeth, this translates into an uncertainty as to whether the prophecies are believable. It seems that Birnam Wood will either come to Dunsinane Hill (a supernatural event) or it will not (a natural event); but the actual even turns out to be neither here nor there, as the Wood figuratively comes to Dunsinane.

Ambition and temptation both play a key factor in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s decision to kill Duncan. Macbeth possesses enough self-awareness to realize the dangers of overzealous ambition: “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’other” (25-28). And yet, the temptation to carry out the witches' prophecy is ultimately too strong for Macbeth to curb his ambition. In Lady Macbeth’s lexicon, incidentally, “hope” is also another word for “ambition” and perhaps “temptation.” As Macbeth expresses his doubts about killing Duncan, she demands: “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself” (35-36)? Ironically, Lady Macbeth must herself rely on intoxicants to “make [her] bold” before executing her ambitious and murderous plans (II ii 1). Once the intoxication wears off, Lady Macbeth finds that she is unable to cope with the consequences of her own "hope." Ultimately, ambition and temptation prove fatal for both the Macbeths.

As a morality tale of sorts, Macbeth has as its near contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Like Dr. Faustus, Macbeth recognizes the damning consequences of his crime:

. . . 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.” (I vii 16-20)

And yet Macbeth carries out the crime, thus precipitating his own descent into hell. Later in the play, appropriately, Macduff calls Macbeth by the name of “hell-hound” (V x 3). Indeed, the story of Macbeth is that of a man who acquiesces in his damnation—in part because he cannot utter words that may attenuate his crime. As Duncan’s guards pray “God bless us” on their deathbed, Macbeth cannot say one “Amen” (II ii 26-27). His fate is thus sealed entirely by his own hands.

Free Macbeth Essays: The Role of Guilt

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The Role of Guilt in Macbeth  

 

Guilt plays a strong role in motivating Macbeth, and causes Lady Macbeth to be driven over the edge of sanity - to her death. Throughout the story, there are many different types of guilty feelings that play a role in Macbeth’s fatal decisions and bring Lady Macbeth to commit suicide. Although there are many instances that show the power guilt has played on the main characters, there are three examples that show this the best. One is, just after the murder of the great King, Duncan. Guilt overcomes Macbeth where he can no longer think straight. A second example is soon after that, where all the guilt Macbeth feels at first, changes into hate after he decides that Banquo must be killed as well. The last example is just about at the end of the play, when we see Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, and then later committing suicide; this all because of the burden of her guilt. All of these examples build the proof that in this play, guilt plays a very large role in the characters’ lives.

It all began really in Act II, Scene II after the murder of Duncan, when Macbeth returns to his room to join his wife. As any person would be, Macbeth is very shaken by his wrong act. Killing a man, not to mention a beloved king is a sin and Macbeth knows it very well! He truly believes he has murdered all innocence, and only worse things will follow. Throughout the scene there are several quotes that show this; " Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more," and " Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red." This shows the amount of guilt he felt. He describes this by saying that if he tried to wash his hands in the river, it would turn into the colour of the blood itself. Lady Macbeth attempts to make him stronger, " A little water clears us of this deed: How easy it is then!" But the guilt he feels just does not go away…At least for the time being.

As soon as Act III is set up, we see Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo having a nice friendly conversation.

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Macbeth was already crowned king, and a dinner was planned for that night. Banquo was to be the "guest of honour". Little did any of us know, Macbeth was already conspiring his friend’s death. Guilt seems to play a motivating role when he says, "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill" What he is referring to, is his guilt; if you do something bad once, it will bother you. If you do it again, it will bother you less. If you keep doing it, it will eventually stop bothering you completely. He also admits, (that one time only) in the scene, that after killing Duncan, his morals and guilt were poisoned and used to motivate him to commit more murderous crimes. " If’t be so, for Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind; For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered; Put rancors in the vessel of my peace…"

Perhaps one of the strongest evidence that shows guilt, is how it affected Lady Macbeth. After the absence of a story line for most of the play, Act V begins by re-entering Lady Macbeth; this time though, she is not at all the woman we were first introduced to. It begins with a discussion between a doctor and a very worried gentlewoman about the failing health of the lady herself. Just as we learn that she has begun to sleepwalk every night, Lady Macbeth comes in, doing just that. She starts to rub her arms, in a washing motion and says, "Out damned spot! Out, I say!" and, "…Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" The word blood, is really a metaphor for the enormous guilt she feels and her action, in trying to get rid of the guilt by "washing" and rubbing it away. In the second quote, the "old man" represents, King Duncan. Who would have known that killing the king carried so much guilt? Her sleepwalking continues as she talks about the death of Lady Macduff. " The thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?" After the continuous rubbing motion, Lady Macbeth cries out, "Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." She realises that nothing could ever get rid of the smell of the blood and the guilt caused by all the murders committed by Macbeth. It’s also shown here that she feels fully responsible for every person killed by her husband. Just several scenes later, Lady Macbeth commits suicide. What’s the reason? It was just a build up of all the guilt.

The quotes and explanations used throughout this essay, built up proof that guilt played a big role as the motivation for Macbeth, and guilty feelings were brought out through the characters’ actions and responses, until the very fatal end. Guilt itself, is a very strong and uncomfortable feeling. It can result though, in many good things, and just as easily into bad things. This is what happened throughout this story…And this is also why the play has been called, "The Tragedy of Macbeth."

 



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