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Essay/Term paper: The problem in macbeth

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Macbeth

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The Problem in Macbeth

We have already seen that the focus is on Macbeth and his wife,
furthermore, we have seen that the crucial problem is the decision and the act,
especially in which sense you can consciously and freely choose to do evil, then
do it and then be faced with the consequences. The problem is old. Socrates
maintained that no one with full insight in what was evil, would of his own free
will do it and that claim had been dominating for almost two millennia. The
logical power of this claim was that it was a tautology or even better; a
Any human activity, to think, to speak, to act, has to focus on a
purpose. The definitive impulse to throw yourself into an activity is the urge
towards selfpreservation that lies deep in any living creature. That is why man
cannot want his selfdestruction; he only wants the Good, understood as that
which promotes its own selfpreservation.
If, however, we exclusively define the Good as man's selfpreservation,
man's different attempts to achieve this would lead to mutual destruction. If I
- and everyone included - unhampered and in absolute selfishness only seek my
own, the misfortune I could inflict on someone would naturally be limitless. So
there has to be a further addition to the concept of Good.
The Good, we might add, is not only the instantaneous need for
satisfaction - in a matter of time it will often turn out to be an evil - but it
is in fact the absolute purpose for any human being (the highest Good), and it
isn't just common for everyone, but, when you strive for it, you include the
others in a true community.
But that means that the Good isn't just a subjective phenomenon; it is
objective, and in a philosophical analysis you begin to see a picture of a
hierarchical construction of still higher goods, from the simple ones you can
strive for in everyday life to the eternal salvation that can only be sought for
its own sake. Since man wants to be in accordance with himself and since the
whole area of Good is conform with man, man must freely want the Good; you could
be more accurate by saying that man necessarily wants the Good.
However, it is a fact that man once in a while actually chooses the evil
and that needs an explanation. First and foremost, this explanation is lack of
insight. It is reason which in the given situation can choose the right
possibility and then make the will act upon it. But reason can be mistaken; the
situation can be confused or you can find yourself in a conflict where it is
doubtful which possibility is right. Under these circumstances man can do evil
in the false belief that it was the Good.
The source of error could be found in man's desire as well. We've all
got our weaknesses, strong inclinations, and we know that in a certain situation
we can succumb to them. As we know the near Good is a stronger impulse than the
more distant Evil. If you, however, express it in rational categories, you could
say that again reason is wrong. It believes it's a greater Good to satisfy the
immediate inclination than - if necessary - to give it up because of a more
distant Good. And you could add to it that there is a strong urge to fulfil the
inclination because you identify with it; without it - and its fulfilment - you
weren't yourself.
Even though we no longer express the relation in these terms
philosophically, we're faced with everyday phenomena so familiar that we all
know them and it's by virtue of this we're able to understand "Macbeth". Macbeth
is the man who consciously and freely chooses Evil. He is the tragical figure
because he looks like any of us but finds himself in an extreme situation where
the act is no longer more or less harmless, but absolute in its consequences.
Macbeth's act is a breach with all natural feeling and all natural duties and he
knows. Once and for all he does what cannot be done, which cannot be done again
or undone, which cannot be withdrawn, which isn't just a partial, maybe big
crime, but which destroys a world order. Under cover of dismay he expresses it
like this:

"... for from this instant
There's nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead,
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of." (Act II, scene 3) 2.
That the crime can get such shocking consequences must be understood
from Shakespeare`s understanding of life. In a medieval way Shakespeare
illustrates the world as a harmoniously built hierarchy, and this order is
nature. It manifests itself between people when they meet in trust, frankness,
integrity and reliability, when they respect the bond of nature: love, sense of
duty and devotion. It is a world of light, self-expression and goodness. With
his crime Macbeth
has torn this world down. Duncan was his king, his relative and his
guest. His crime is therefore not only a murder, but a crime of unnatural
nature; it has broken down all the bonds that bind the community together, thus
he has brought himself in a quite new situation: a situation of disorder,
"unnature" monstrosity and destruction.
In order to explain how "unnature" breaks with nature Shakespeare uses
supernature. Demons of darkness rule. What is characteristic about these demons
incarnated in the witches is that they don`t deprive a man of his own free will;
without man`s own free will they are without power - they can tempt, lure,
pronounce equivocations, but only in combination with man`s own disposition and
will can they achieve anything. Thus it is correct that the witches take the
initiative towards Macbeth, meet him on the heath with triple salutations; but
it is just as correct that it is lady Macbeth herself who takes the initiative
towards the demons of darkness; she calls them for help in a triple invocation:
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.......Come to my women`s
breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, whenever in your
sightless substances you wait nature`s mischief! Come,thick night,and pall thee
in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor
heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, to cry "Hold, hold". (Act 1 scene 5
line 39-53)
The demoniacal powers are thus not sufficient to explain the consciously
evil deed. To Shakespeare it is essential, despite the supernatural, demoniacal
forces, to preserve man`s integrity as a free and responsible being. That`s why
you have to ignore the demoniacal and find the real cause in the main
characters' mental disposition.
As for Macbeth it is important that he is thoroughly explained to us,
before we are introduced to him. The short first scene is a presentation of the
demoniacal attempt to tempt Macbeth, and already then do we know a lot. For
example there is no attempt to simultaneously tempt Banquo. It would have been
in vain. But Macbeth is the typical victim to temptations, that is, he is a man
for whom choices are not an obvious thing. In an important situation of choice,
the alternatives will occur to him as equally possible - or impossible. His
imagination will take possession of them, see through them, weigh them and it
would be very complicated for him to reach a conclusion. Only a man of such
calibre will it make sense to tempt.
Thereupon we get his friends'opinion of him. It is unequivocal: He is
the worthy warrior, the noble man, the loyal thane, and we are told about the
reward that awaits him and turns out to be so fatal: The appointment to be Thane
of Cawdor. That means we see Macbeth both as the one who lets himself be
influenced by others and the one who in a grandiose way can act when it counts.
One could say that there is something immature about him, something naive. It`s
possible to manipulate with his free will and the point of attack is the missing
rootedness in his opinion of what is right. "Fair is foul and foul is fair"
becomes his principal characterisation.
How will a person of this type react in a decisive situation?. To answer
the question one has to understand two things. In most situations of choice,
many possibilities are presented; there is a wide spectrum to choose from and
the choice will be within a limited range; it will be of some importance but, it
can be withdrawn; you can redecide or ward off the effect if it was wrong. It is
in these conditions we find ourselves in normal situations of choice. When, on
the other hand, the acute situation of choice occurs, the one that fatefully and
irrevocably determines our life, the choice is narrowed down into a dilemma; we
are faced with an either/or, where no third possibility is given, and where it`s
impossible to get through with a compromise.
Secondly, in the acute situation of choice it will be ourselves as human
that will be at stake. It's not about some more or less important detail, but
it's about the Absolute, which unconditionally determines everything. And the
question is then, in what sense we under these circumstances have the liberty to
choose. That is the situation Macbeth is placed in, the extreme and radical
situation of choice. His options are narrowed down to two: either he has to
commit the unnatural crime and kill his king, his relative, his guest - or he
has to once and for all give up his ambition to be king of Scotland.
In this situation what is the Good? Anyone - Macbeth included -
realizes that ethically considered the Good is to give up the ambition. He
clearly realizes what it would cost him to choose the other opportunity: loss
of eternal salvation and retribution, which will strike him in this world.
Can't he then freely choose the good opportunity? Nothing from the outside
prevents him, on the contrary it urges him. But there is something else, that
prevents him: If he chooses that opportunity, he has to give up all hope of
kingship - but he can't, because it would mean that he has to give up himself as
Macbeth. He is only Macbeth with that ambition. This has to be rightly
understood. We all have our ambitions, more or less. But we don't identify
with them. A lot of our ambitions are never fulfilled. It hurts, but it
demands from us, that we have the strength to give up without losing ourselves.
If one ambition fails, we always have the others, and - the important thing is -
we have ourselves. On the other hand, in a case, where a person has
identified himself with one single ambition, it is impossible to give up that
ambition; he has nothing to fall back on, not even another ambition, not even
himself for that matter, because he is his ambition.
It is therefore in Macbeth's situation an impossible question what the
Good is. The Good is to preserve yourself, but he is in the narrow situation,
that whatever alternative he chooses, it doesn't matter, the result is the same,
he loses himself. He is in the regular dilemma, carried out to its extreme
consequence: he can't choose. His quite natural reaction is therefore to seek
for a third possibility to solve his dilemma. He takes away the possibilities
of the dilemma's of their ethical qualifications:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good.(Act I,sc.3, l.130-131)

and claims that function

is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. (Act 7, sc.3, l.140-142)

What does he do then; he refuses to choose, he seeks extension or he hopes
another power will choose for him:

If chance will have me king, why,
chance may crown me,
without my stir. (Act 1,sc.3, l.143-145)

To his wife he seeks to postpone the matter:

We will speak further. (Act 1, sc.5, l.69)

And later:

We will proceed no further in this business.
(Act 1, sc. 7, l. 31)

But that position is impossible. In the dilemma there is not given any third
possibility and especially no postponement, because the dilemma is aggressive
and demands its solution. What brings about the solution? The rather doubtful
belief that he can act without consequences. However clear he has seen that it
will cost him salvation, and revenge will strike him, he is by Lady Macbeth's
cleverly prepared plan of murder led to the belief that it is possible anyway,
without any consequences for him. He suffers from the self-delusion that
consequences will only occur, if he is absolutely palpably revealed as a
murderer; if the guilt can be placed on the valets, the case is clear. And then
he chooses - of own free will - to kill Duncan.
But he hasn't foreseen the cosmic law. For Shakespeare History plays a
certain role, and in that respect he belongs, not to the Middle Ages but to the
Renaissance. History is not linear, as it is for us, but it is circular, and
the crucial thing is, that it passes in epochs. The word "time" gets its own
special meaning. A time is an epoch with a certain structure, and for man it's
a matter of being conform with it. To avoid the consequences by the fatal
action it is of importance to stop time, let the present time remain, what it is.
That is exactly, what Lady Macbeth belief is possible:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
This future in the instant. (Act 1, sc.5, l.55-57)

And when she finds out that according to the plan Duncan is going to move on the
next day, she bursts out

O, never
Shall sun that morrow see! (Act 1, sc.5, l. 59-60)

The importance of these exclamations lies in the human relationship to
fate and future. It's always uncertain, and that uncertainty is just another
expression of the fact that the dilemma Macbeth is in, is nothing but the daily
dilemma of every man. But lady Macbeth thinks it's possible to anticipate the
future and thereby take fate in hand. She has been brought out of the ignorance
a man is always in, and thus can now organize her future, so that it is in fact
present. In cosmic perspective Macbeth's crime means that he and his "partner of
greatness" try to tie up time and make it unchangeable.
But that attempt proves to be in vain.
The attempt causes, however, a schism between what time really is and
what Macbeth and his wife are. Therefore they have to "mock the time" by
pretending to be the opposite.( "And mock the time with fairest show"), says
lady Macbeth, and that is precisely what they both - in the beginning with luck
- try to do. But thereby confidence, frankness, integrity, and the reliability
are destroyed. Macbeth and his wife have embarked on the great equivocation, the
doubleness and cunning, which occupies such a dominant place in the drama. They
want to "equivocate" themselves to the control.
It's not strange they do that. Macbeth is predisposed to that kind of
opinion. His attempt to balance the possibilities of the dilemma, to keep them
undecided, to seek respite, to leave the decision to other powers, is a mental
equivocation. However, what they at last, but too late, learn, is that every
equivocation contains its own end. Shakespeare shows it openly by letting them
become victims of a higher form of equivocation: the ambiguous prophecies,
which are literally true, but are still formed in such a way that Macbeth must
necessarily misunderstand them, and thereby be led to his own destruction. If
one focuses on that, one can say that the tragedy is about the essence and the
fate of equivocation.
The same can be expressed in the law that any attempt to tie up time, to
make it stop, is void. Time goes on. "Time and the hour runs through the
roughest day", says Macbeth, and this he says for his own comfort, but the
statement shows his mistake. With his crime he has changed time. It has from
cosmos sunk into chaos. From that moment he is in hell, because hell isn't a
locality, placed somewhere, but is a state, which can be found everywhere. His
porter has in the true meaning of the word become porter in hell.
Hell is the dissolution of all natural ties or is to be cut off from the
community. As the drama proceeds, Macbeth becomes still more lonely. His
dominion is barren. Literally in the sense that he is childless - and lady
Macbeth's harsh allegation that she was ready to kill her baby for the sake of
the dominion, is therefore significant.The short scene, where Duncan and Banquo
at the arrival at Macbeth's castle praise its graceful position, its mild air
and the atmosphere of eroticism and natural growing, which the swallows
represent, therefore becomes scathingly ironical, when we, the audience, know
that here barrenness and wickedness rule.
But the barrenness also appears in the fact that Macbeth literally has
to create emptiness around himself, has to kill, wipe out his friends. And the
barrenness rises to its climax in the last act. Everyone leaves him to gather
around the true ruler. Even his wife commits suicide in madness, and his army
deserts him. Then he realizes that he has reached the end of the road; his life
is buried in the yellow leaves; the only thing left for him is old age, but
without all that should be the ornament of old age: honour, affection, awe, and
friends; around him now only curses are heard, flattery and idle talk. The roles
have been changed; it is now he, who is the object of the others' equivocation,
and he lacks the courage to refuse it, because that is the only thing, he has
with that this, however, is the end of his destructive work. When he is
killed, the redeeming line can be said: The time is free. Hell has been survived
and resurrection has been reached.
If we have to look at the matter from a more philosophic point of view,
the unnature Macbeth creates consists in the thought becoming one with the
action. It can be understood phychologically; his earlier attempt to
continuously weigh the possibilities, to escape the dilemma by postponing it,
was by the intervention of his wife interrupted in the hopeless action. Macbeth
thinks to have learned from it:

From this moment
the firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.


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