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As a story of appalling crime and retribution, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is unique in ascribing greater attention to unscrupulous criminals than to their victims. As such, the overall mood of the play must be taken with respect to the context; the focus is deliberately placed on the darker side of humanity, and the play continually alludes to the presence of better men, despite assigning them fewer lines. This said, the question remains as to whether the dark side presented to the audience is simply too dark for interpretation as realistic thinking. Macbeth maps the progression of man from good to corrupt under supernatural temptation, yet does so parallel to the progression of a woman from cruel to repentant. In addition, though Macbeth is dark in emphasising the susceptibility of man to corruption, it does so while highlighting that this is not inevitable; good has the power to prevail. I will assess the overall viewpoint of Macbeth chronologically, on the basis of character, plot and theme development.
Macbeth is first presented as something of a hero, indelibly faithful to his King and valiant in his battles to protect his country. He is described by Ross as ‘Bellona’s bridegroom,’ and praised by his virtuous ruler as a ‘peerless kinsman,’ worthy of the highest praise. His responses then, to the witches’ prophetic solicitings, are disturbingly unfitting, swelling all too quickly to a serious contemplation of treachery and murder. The susceptibility of this courageous and munficent man to such immediate moral confusion is undoubtedly dark, suggesting that the greatest of men are subject to corruption. Yet, this progression is not wholly unrealistic, for two reasons. First, Macbeth has considerable doubts, such that he only lightly alludes to the murder, and recoils at the prospect with indubitable humanity: ‘My thought, who’s murther is yet fantastical, shakes so my single state of man.’ Secondly, Banquo acts as the antithesis of Macbeth, suspecting with immediacy and conviction that the witches ought to be disregarded. He warns his contemporary that ‘Oftentimes the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles to betray’s in deepest consequence.’ I do not believe it is pessimistic to suggest that one man will contemplate evil, while another man will resist the temptation. Indeed, in gifting the play with a near flawless foil, Shakespeare rids the opening scenes of exaggerated pessimism, giving the dialogue a certain authenticity and balance.
It was during our introduction to Lady Macbeth, that the play adopted an overtly pessimistic tone, portraying humanity as inadvertantly inclined towards cruelty. Upon learning of the witches’ evil prophecies, she shows no hesitation in her desire to act upon them. Her first thoughts are of the virtues of her husband, which she construes as the ultimate vices, echoing the wierd sisters’ chants of moral confusion: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair.’ Indeed, her moral outlook epitomises an utter inversion of righteousness, as she muses, ‘I do fear thou art too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.’ With powerful imagery, Shakespeare uses milk as a symbol of virtuous sanctity; as she rebukes it, the dark tones of her perturbing character are highlighted in full. However again with a parity typical of Shakespeare’s more complex works, Lady Macbeth prays that ‘no compunctious visitings of nature,’ inhibit her from actualizing her moral aspirations. This reveals her understanding that compassion is a natural emotion, despite her willingness to suppress or overcome it. As such, she is required to call on ‘murthering ministers,’ to rid her of her femininity, crying, ‘Come you evil spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.’ There is great erotic force in her desire to renounce her muliebrity. While the fact that this task is necessary gives the play a slight sense of realism, I that feel her willingness to do it renders the play rather more pessimistic and dark than anything else. As she manipulates her husband into murder, questioning the integrity of his masculinity and valour, I cannot but recall the familiar tales of the Garden of Eden. Like Eve, she tempts her husband into self-destructing violence; The act is the very essence of humanity’s darkest side.
Duncan’s murder presents itself as a powerful analysis of humanity, which is in one sense disturbingly pessimistic, and in another quite the contrary. Lady Macbeth is shown here to be ruthless, masterminding the logistics of the murder to which her husband helplessly succumbs. As she observes the blood covering her husband’s hands, her flippant, blaise remark is almost alarming: ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ She dismisses the importance of life with a disturbing stoicism, and Shakespeare’s portrayal of her character is here as pessimistic as can be. Some cite her inability to commit the murder herself as evidence of her compassion, but I disagree. I feel her continuation of the plan highlights the most disturbing of all evils: That which meets compassion and overlooks it.
However through Macbeth’s response to the murder, a certain balance is once again restored to the scene. Tormented by his deeds from the moment he commits them, he cries out ‘Will all great Neptune’s Ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?’ He is consumed by unparalleled regret at the sight of Duncan’s body, willing him to live again and crushed by the impossibility of his return. This anxious remorse, coupled with his earlier hesitancy, renders the scene more authentic; While pessimism would dictate that man is cruel to the core, it is realism which suggests this internal struggle between lust for power and innate humanity.
It must be said that this balance between good and evil falters briefly in the centre of the play. This is for dramatic affect; the world must be at its worst before it can be saved. Driven by paranoiea, Macbeth becomes one of the most debased, inexorable characters among all Shakespearean works. The remorseless murder of Banquo, a close and righteous companion, marks his descent into inconceivable tyranny, and is followed by a litany of heartless executions. He finds false security in the conjured apparitions, and resolves to let ‘the very firstlings of (his) heart become the firstlings of (his) hand.’ For me, it was the moment in which Macduff heard of his family’s fate, that consolidated the truly sinister themes underscoring his downfall. He demands in desperate disbelief: ‘All my little ones, you say? All of them?’ The King’s savage killings are set against the backdrop of a ‘suffering country, under a hand accursed,’ and each action culminates in another, until Macduff is boldened to say that ‘Not in the legions of horrid Hell can come a devil more damned in evils to top Macbeth.’ Indeed, Macbeth’s capacity for evil is almost confounding, and by the end of the play he describes himself as wholly immune to its effects: ‘I have supp’d full of horrors, direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts cannot once start me.’ This is darkness without relief, and a truly pessimistic portrayal of human nature.
Parallel to the destruction of Scotland, and certainly worthy of note, is Lady Macbeth’s sudden shift in disposition. Once an exponent of the darkest forces, this complex character soon becomes a victim of remorse. As she sleepwalks through the night, her ‘eyes open but their sense shut,’ we witness the internal workings of a truly repentant mind. Scraping violently at fictitious blood stains, she laments that ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ This reveals two things, one relieving, and one inconceivably dark. Lady Macbeth becomes acutely aware of the cruelty behind her deeds, and wholly regrets them. This is an optimistic feature of the play, emphasising mankind’s capacity for self-realisation and reform. Yet, the way in which the lady handles this remorse is disturbing and non-contructive. The aftermath of her own barbarity consumes her entirely, and by ‘selfsame violent hands’ she ultimately takes her life. In this, we are made aware of a dark, unsettling truth: Humanity, even in repentance, is self destructive. This deeply pessimistic theme lies at the core of Macbeth.
Yet, even despite these inconceivably dark elements, the conclusion of the play presents a triumph of good over evil, solely instigated by the goodness prevailing among Macbeth’s most resilient opponents. Indeed one of the most important aspects of the work, is that the men of Scotland do not condone the tyrant. Angus remarks that ‘Those he commands, move only in command, nothing in love,’ while Malcolm asserts that ‘None move with him, but constrained things, who’s hearts are absent too.’ Macbeth has few who abide by his malicious standards, assuring us that the good outnumber the evil. This truth manifests in the triumph of a righteous army over a relentless tyrant. The dark forces are defeated, and the pessimism of the play is lifted to allow for a traditionally jubilant ending. We are reminded of Malcolm’s earlier comment that ‘Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.’
It is difficult to decipher whether Macbeth portrays a dark view of humanity, or a dark view of life and its circumstances. While mankind may harbour the capacity to overcome evil, what is to be said of the witches, who exist in the shadows, with sole intention of corrupting good men? In response to this, it has been proposed that the witches themselves are a figment of Macbeth’s imagination- a dramatic externalisation of his inner-self. If so, what we have in their assurances is even more perturbing: Macbeth’s self-deception, justifying his moral atrocities and forging, in madness, his very own path to destruction. Being inclined to accept this view, I feel that the play is overall a pessimistic one. The tyrant was defeated, but not reformed. The message is not that men have a capacity for virtue, but that they have an alarming capacity for evil in its greatest and most irreversible form.
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