The Downfall of Macbeth

By | April 10, 2008

Macbeth, written by William Shakespeare, is the tragic tale of Macbeth, a virtuous man, corrupted by power and greed. This tragedy can be classified by one of two theories. One theory suggests that the tragic hero, Macbeth, is led down an inescapable road of doom by an outside force; namely the three witches. The second suggests that there is no supernatural force working against Macbeth, which therefore makes him responsible for his own actions and inevitable downfall. Macbeth is indeed responsible for his own actions which are provoked by Lady Macbeth, the witches, his ambition, and an unwillingness to listen to his own conscience. These forces had no direct control over his actions but simply pointed out different paths for him to follow. Ultimately, Macbeth chose the path of darkness.Throughout the entire play Macbeth ignores the voice of his own conscience. He knows what he is doing is wrong even before he murders Duncan. His own conscience is nagging at him but he allows Lady Macbeth and greed to cloud his judgment. In referring to the idea of the murder of Duncan, Macbeth first states,”We will proceed no further in this business”(I, vii, 32). Yet, after speaking with Lady Macbeth he recants and proclaims, “I am settled, and bend up /Each corporal agent to this terrible feat”(I, vii, 79-80). He allows himself to be swayed by the woman he loves. Lady Macbeth gave him an ultimatum and provoked him by saying:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man….. (I, vii, 49-51)

She provokes him by questioning his manhood and then saying that he would be a much greater man if he were to go through with the deed. Macbeth then had to make a decision. He willingly chose to follow the path of death and destruction. Lady Macbeth simply showed him that path.

It is easy to believe that the witches controlled Macbeth and made him follow a path of doom. The predictions they give, coupled with their unholy ways suggest that they are in control of him. They are not. It is admittedly strange that the weird sisters first address Macbeth with,’All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee Thane of Cawdor!’(I, iii, 49), a title which not even Macbeth is aware he has been awarded. Even stranger is the third witch calling to Macbeth,’All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!’(I, iii, 50). Here it may seem as if the witches are using their supernatural powers to control Macbeth’s future. All they have done is foretold his future. A prophecy is hardly an invitation to murder. Banquo hears the witches’ words and tells Macbeth:

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence (I, iii, 124-126)

He is telling Macbeth not to be swayed by the witches even though one of the prophecies has come true. It is a warning that Macbeth ignores. He is so enraptured by the prophecies of the witches that he consciously follows a path of darkness in an effort to fulfil the prophecies

It can also be shown that the witches definitely have no physical control over Macbeth. At the very beginning of the scene, the first witch punishes a sailor’s wife by tossing his ship about on the seas. This in turn will cause his sleeplessness.

Weary sev’nights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed (I, iii, 22-25)

The witches can do no more to Macbeth than they did to the sailor. The witch can toss the ship about but she cannot cause its sinking nor can she directly cause the sailor to go without sleep. She must cause the sailor’s misery indirectly by tossing his ship about The witches may tell the future and tempt Macbeth; they may toss about his ‘bark’, but they have no direct influence over him. Only Macbeth controls his actions.

The final argument for the theory that Macbeth is reponsible for his own actions, would be a point that the infamous witches and Macbeth agree upon. This point exists in the form of Macbeth’s ambiton. In the soliloquy that Macbeth gives before he murders Duncan, he states:

…I have no spur
To prick the sides of intent, but only
Vaulting ambition,… (I, vii, 25-27).

These are not the words of a man who is merely being led down a self destructive path of doom, with no will of his own. They are the words of a man who realizes not only the graveness of his actions, but, also the reasons behind them. Macbeth is a fully cognizant person and not a mindless puppet of the supernatural. Later the head witch, Hecate, declares:

Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you. (III, v, 11-13)

This again highlights Macbeth’s ambitious nature. There is no connection between Macbeth’s ambition and some spell cast by the weird sisters which might be said to magically cause an increase in his desires. He willingly committed the crimes to fulfil his ambitions; not because of a spell cast by the witches.

While purposely played in a mysterious setting, the location is not meant to cloud the true theme of the play with the supernatural. Macbeth simply succumbs to natural urges and his own ambitions which lead him to a fate of his own making. The provocations of Lady Macbeth, the witches, his ambition and his reluctance to listen to his conscience were the deciding factors in his life. He was not supernaturally controlled by the black magic of the witches nor was he purposefully led down a path of destruction. He was fully aware of the consequences of all the decisions he made. Everyone has character flaws that they must live with; Macbeth simply allowed those flaws to destroy him.

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