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In ‘Macbeth,’ the eponymous character fulfils his own overwhelming thirst for power by committing what was viewed to be worst possible crime: regicide. This initial murder of King Duncan acts as a starting point for Macbeth’s reign of terror, and results in him no longer being viewed as a courageous warrior, but instead a fraudulent tyrant, eventually leading to his death at the hands of Macduff. Shakespeare uses the crime, its initial aftermath and its long-term consequences to develop the main characters of the play, deepening the audience’s understanding primarily of Macbeth but also of Lady Macbeth and Banquo.
According to the Medieval Scottish society in which the play is set, King Duncan is the representative of God on Earth; to kill Duncan is to betray the deity himself, resulting in damnation to an eternity in hell. Where Duncan represents the light of God, the Witches represent the powers of darkness. In this way, it is not solely the act itself which alienates Macbeth from God; in committing the murder, Macbeth is also fulfilling the prophecies of evil. Macbeth later actively seeks out the help of the Witches, certifying his kingship not as a rule by divine right, and not even simply as the rule of a counterfeit; it is tyranny of the darkest kind.
Where regicide is essential to the tragedy’s plot, the true importance of the crime is in its effect: on those who commit it, and on the country in which it is committed. The play, after all, does not have an event as its title, but instead a character; the most remarkable feature of the play is not the murder, but the murderer. Through his foresight of the consequences of his own crime and his refusal to deceive himself concerning them, Macbeth is portrayed as an exceptional character.
In this way, the evil deed Macbeth commits provides the audience with a deeper understanding of him. His soliloquy at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 7 is particularly valuable in illustrating the character’s deep inner conflict prior to the regicide. Macbeth deems the outrage of the deed graver still when considering King Duncan and his relationship with him; in his description of Duncan as having been ‘So clear in his great office’ Macbeth does not attempt to claim that the crime would be at all justified. However, it is not purely the shame and evil in the murder that Macbeth recognizes in this soliloquy – he also foresees its consequences. This insight is shown in the following words:
“We jump the life to come…Bloody instruction, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor”
The dark imagery evident in these lines, a feature which is particularly prominent in the soliloquy, further stresses the evil that regicide entails. The words ‘we jump the life to come’ show that Macbeth truly believes that he would be sacrificing his afterlife for the throne. However, he also clearly recognizes that a long reign is most certainly not ensured, with the words ‘Bloody instruction…return/ To plague the inventor’ highlighting his own insecurity as monarch were he to kill Duncan, with his own act simply encouraging others to commit regicide upon him. It is therefore made clear that Macbeth recognizes the full extent and breadth of the consequences of murdering Duncan, not only forfeiting his afterlife, but also the chance of a long, enjoyable and secure life on Earth.
The honesty with which Macbeth approaches the murder, and the clarity with which he foresees its consequences allows the audience to understand Macbeth as a character of depth – a man not purely characterised by the crime he commits.
Macbeth’s profound nature is even more marked when considering the attitude of his wife towards the same crime. Lady Macbeth is, by contrast, a far shallower character. This contrast is particularly evident in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, where Lady Macbeth concerns herself more with the action than its consequences. Her practicality at this time is portrayed in the following line, when the couple discuss the blood staining their hands:
“A little water clears us of this deed”
Lady Macbeth believes that in washing the blood from her hands, an act which will conceal from others the fact that they have committed an evil act, she has fully dealt with the matter; she recognizes the problem of others discovering their actions, but she does not consider her own conscience to be equally problematic. This is a naivety that Macbeth does not share – his own feelings concerning the blood on his hands are shown in the following words:
“…No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”
The concept of the blood on his hands turning entire seas red confirms that Macbeth does not talk solely of the tangible substance which coats him, but also to the immense guilt that is engulfing him. The word ‘multitudinous’ in particular stresses the magnitude of this guilt. The depth of the main character’s thoughts is stressed here, with his profound consideration of their immorality unable to inhibit his actions but present nonetheless. The directly contrasting lines of the two characters are effective in emphasising the fundamental differences between husband and wife; Macbeth considers the impact on the soul, whereas Lady Macbeth considers only the real and the physical. The vast difference in the characters after the crime really contributes to the audience’s understanding of the them, and in particular of the profoundness of the protagonist.
However, it is not solely through their immediate attitude towards the murder that we form a deeper understanding of the principal characters in the play; Shakespeare further develops the characters throughout the aftermath of the crime, showing how they respond in the long-term to the consequences of their actions.
These important changes in character are evident by the final Act of the play.
Where Lady Macbeth is rendered helpless by guilt, Macbeth becomes further detached from the killing; he is the cold character that Lady Macbeth had tried and failed to become. The Lady Macbeth of Act 1, who wished to be filled ‘from the crown to the toe topfull/ Of direst cruelty’, seems a different character to the pathetic, broken woman of Act 5 who feverishly scrubs at the invisible blood on her hands. In contrast, by the final Act of the play, Macbeth has been brutalized and hardened by his tyrannical reign, failing to display any emotion at his own wife’s death; a reaction unthinkable of the Macbeth of Act 1. In this way, the crime allows the audience to understand the true potential of the characters, with Macbeth’s self-knowledge enabling him to correctly predict his demise, and a lack of the same characteristic in his wife causing her to underestimate her own conscience.
Despite his own foresight, Macbeth proceeds to murder Duncan, knowingly damning himself to a life of guilt and an afterlife in hell. This indicates that the strongest characteristic of Macbeth is his ambition – an instrumental force which drives him to commit acts that his morality is not strong enough to prevent. Macbeth’s ambition and morality are very much central to the play, with the imbalance of the two crucial to his murdering Duncan. Again, Shakespeare’s uses other characters to help the audience understand this particular aspect of Macbeth – his fellow nobleman, Banquo, is placed in the same position as Macbeth, yet his own morality ensures that he does not go to the same lengths.
The witches’ description of Banquo as ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater’ in Act 1 Scene 3 captures the distinction between the two men perfectly. Banquo is ‘Lesser than Macbeth’ in terms of the burning ambition that consumes Macbeth, but is far ‘greater’ in terms of the strength of his conscience. Duncan’s murder by Macbeth’s hand is made inevitable as a result of him having a much greater sense of ambition than Banquo, and a much weaker conscience than him.
The strength of Banquo’s conscience means that he can keep his ambition in check, but only consciously. Banquo’s reaction to his own traitorous dreams is shown in the following words:
“Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!”
In sleep, Banquo’s immoral, evil dreams mirror those of Macbeth; in the subconscious, with no conscience to control Banquo, the fundamental differences in the characters disappear. The use of the exclamation mark in this line stresses Banquo’s horror at his own ambition.
Once more, regicide allows the audience further insight in to the play’s characters; the separate reactions of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo to the idea of the crime helps to reveal their strengths, their weaknesses and what truly drives them.
To conclude, the regicide Macbeth commits is essential to the audience’s understanding of him in two principal ways: it reveals the overwhelming strength of his ambition in order to commit the crime, and it stresses his extraordinary insight regarding its consequences. Shakespeare also develops and explores other characters through their involvement and reaction to the crime, further deepening the audience’s understanding of them and of Macbeth through their contrast with him. By his very nature, Macbeth is doomed to commit evil, but his honesty and his foresight make it impossible to render him simply an evil man; the profound complexity of his character means that no matter its horror or gravity, he cannot be characterised by a single deed.
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