The play Macbeth is one of the darkest and shortest of the four tragedies written by Shakespeare. Like most of his works, the play revolves around the lives of nobles and the Machiavellian power play that constitutes kingship including devious plots hatched to attain leadership. The play meets the yardstick of a tragedy with the main components of thought and spectacle being superbly displayed, Aristotle (1135b). The two in summary make up the themes in a tragic plot. To understand any character’s fate at the end of the play then, we have to carefully analyze the themes in the play and how they could have contributed to any eventualities.
Throughout the play, several themes are expounded on. To fully comprehend Lady Macbeth’s state of mind, it is imperative to examine some of the major themes. One of the issues explored is ambition. When the play opens, Macbeth is portrayed as a selfless and trustworthy soldier. The king listens to the tales of his conquests with admiration. However, the corrupting effects of power set in after the witches’ prophecies start materializing. The valiant soldier tries to fight the urge to edge his way to the top to no avail. The thought of kingship spawns more greed for power. Lady Macbeth exacerbates this urge to attain power when she plots the king’s murder. Macbeth initially opposes the idea and tries to banish such thoughts. However, her wife is adamant and coerces him by ridiculing his manhood. This unbridled ambition in the couple leads to atrocities beginning with the king’s murder. The whole kingdom is engulfed in terror and even the weather depicts a gloomy state of affairs. The sins arising from this ambition taint the whole of Scotland spreading a physical darkness. In an article on Macbeth written for Cambridge student online notes, Shute, S(Ed), argues that the sin manifests itself in the inclement weather as seen at the beginning of most scenes after the murders.
The playwright later shows the repercussions of greed and ambition when Lady Macbeth falls into madness and Macbeth falls into boastful fits. The king’s state of mind deteriorates as he becomes more isolated and delusional. Shakespeare seems to suggest that Lady Macbeth’s state of mind is a direct effect of her guilt and the blood on her hands. She also regrets setting her husband on the path of a murderous streak.the play is about the disintegration of the state of man, and the state he makes his own, (Rossiter 123-125). This view is best exemplified in Lady Macbeth’s character. Nevertheless, ambition in humanity is not fully disparaged in the play. After Malcolm’s initial doubts over his leadership qualities, he gets the urge to regain his rightful place. With Macduff’s assistance, he assembles the army that eventually ends Macbeth’s tyrannical rule. This shows that ambition must be fuelled by good intentions and strong character.
Another major theme in the play is superstition. This can also be viewed from the perspective of the natural versus the unnatural. The Elizabethan period was awash with tales of witchcraft and Shakespeare seems to be implying the same when he uses the witches. When we meet the three witches at the beginning, their entrance is marked by thunder and lightning. In most societies, the two are harbingers of evil and this prepares the reader for nothing but trouble. The relationship between natural forces and unnatural ones has always been ambiguous throughout history. At some level, humanity condescends to the fact that there are cosmic forces beyond human powers. In the play, Macbeth and Banquo are quick to dismiss the witches but when their prophecies work, all this changes.
The weird sisters’ character and language is distinct from all the other characters to emphasize their aloofness from humanity. When they are introduced, the scenes are always engulfed in darkness to imply the ambiguity between the natural forces and the incomprehensible forces they represent. Their ability to straddle the natural and supernatural places them either as the controllers of fate or merely the agents. Macbeth’s fate seems to be controlled by fate after the weird sister’s predictions. Their pattern of temptations is similar to that used by the devil as widely accepted during the Elizabethan period. However, when the thought of evil is put in a man’s mind, he might play it out as Macbeth does or reject it, (Mushat, F.R 249–252). In the play, most characters seem to believe in omens be it in the weather or echoes heard in the darkness. After the king’s murder, Banquo converses with his son at the gate lamenting his uneasiness at the foul weather. He intimates that it could be an omen of bad tidings and also laments the bad feeling in his heart. As it turns out, regicide has already been committed inside the gates.
The belief in omens points to a superstitious society. Lady Macbeth also seems to be a deeply superstitious character. Before her evil plot, she conjures the spirits to make her evil and un-motherly. She knows the task ahead needs a devious mind and she fully believes this can happen if she invokes the evil agents. She is viewed as the ultimate anti-mother who could wish for an end to her means of procreation (La Belle, 381). The weird sisters who are agents of the goddess Hecate seem to have completely annihilated the reasoning of Lady Macbeth. Her undoing like that of her husband is the blind gambling with superstition. Shakespeare uses the witches to appeal to our senses on the powers of outside forces. The disintegration observed in the noble lady is a warning on the danger of misappropriating supernatural powers.
The theme of fate and chance is also expounded at length. The play’s complexity brought about by inclusion of the witches forces the reader to take an open minded stance at freewill juxtaposed against fate or destiny. Macbeth is a rational soldier before he meets the witches. Initially, he even dismisses their predictions offhand. At this point, his freewill is in control. However, when the first prophesy comes true, doubts arise in his rational thinking. Some force pulls him towards believing the prophecies and even yearning for their fruition. In the same breath, Banquo his colleague doesn’t let this force of fate poison his thinking. He lets his freewill reign. Despite having a stake in the kingship he lets the natural flow of things to take course. Even after death, he is dignified unlike Macbeth who is despised by all. Lady Macbeth is also used by the playwright to clearly distinguish the potent power of freewill. When she receives the letter from her husband, she uses her own will to plot King Duncan’s.
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Her lust for power is the sole reason for the tragic events in the play and the guilt later causes her suicide offstage. She appears stronger than her husband’s and appeals to his ego to persuade him to commit regicide. Most critics argue that Shakespeare was pointing at the power of fate while still showing that human will is what drives our lives. Shute, (ibid) in the same article argues that life is as a product of both fate and choice. When the hitherto noble soldier decides to murder the king, it is by choice just like Banquo doesn’t. The scholar adds that there are other situations when we have no control like when Macbeth dies by Macduff’s sword to restore sanity in the kingdom. The fate that befalls Lady Macbeth emanates from poor choice of action. Her descent into madness is precipitated by her poor decision and lust for power.
To fully understand Lady Macbeth’s fate, we also have to examine the issue of gender. The play has subtle references to feminism and masculinity. When we are introduced to the soldiers returning from battle, all happen to be men. Their conquests make them heroes in the eye of the King and his subjects. The place of the man in the society is already defined from the onset. Lady Macbeth however defies this stereotype. She comes across as a strong personality who is ready to murder for power. This was uncommon especially in a society where women were confined to being mothers. Her ambition makes her wish to be unsexed or deprived all feminine emotions by the spirits. She fears her husband’s weak nature might deny her the promised power. When Macbeth hears of her plot, he predictably recoils but her taunting and coercing forces him to accept the challenge. The issue of manhood brings in the issue of masculinity vis a vis cruelty.
Lady Macbeth expects Macbeth to kill without any qualms because of his gender. The play equates masculinity with aggression though the evil is actually plotted by the women such as Lady Macbeth. The witches also trigger Macbeth’s ambition eventually leading to his death. Lady Macbeth’s misfortune arises from this stereotyping. She believes violating her place in society meant acquiring manly qualities. She cajoles the spirits to give her this but her eagerness to support her weak husband ends in turmoil. She falls apart after the murder while her husband goes on a murdering spree. The order of the genders is reestablished when she moves to the backseat after the murder. The denial of her feminine side leads to a façade of valor which collapses leading to madness. Another softer of manhood is however shown by Macduff when he leans of his family’s murder. Instead of instant revenge, he implores on Malcolm to take the news in a manly manner thus avoiding rash decisions.
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In conclusion, we can argue that Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness is controlled by her own will. She lets the greed for power to blind her leading to a murderous regime. Some critics blame her for all the atrocities in the kingdom while others argue she was an agent of the supernatural. Despite her misfortune, she allows for a re-examination of gender issues, greed and ambition which plague our societies. Her madness is symptomatic of the consequences of unbridled ambition and lust for power.
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