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The Deterioation of Macbeth
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.” This quote applies to the character of Macbeth and his subsequent downfall because it outlines the effects that excessive ambition and negative influences can have on an individual’s life and the lives of those around him or her. In the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth is referred to as a good, noble, and honorable man, who serves the interests of the King of Scotland over himself. However, his drive and ambition is so excessive that it results in him being easily manipulated by the witches. Over the course of the play, Macbeth’s overpowering ambition blinds him into depending on and trusting the witches and their prophecies. Furthermore, he becomes de-sensitized to taking lives after he kills King Duncan.
In Act one, Scene three, Macbeth and his good friend, Banquo meet with the witches. This is when Macbeth receives the witches’ prophecy, and when he is told that he will be named the “thane of Glamis” (1.3.49), the “thane of Cawdor” (1.3.50), and “that [he] shalt be king hereafter” (1.3.51). Upon hearing the witches’ prophecy, the prophecy sparks the idea of becoming king in Macbeth’s mind. It fuels his ambition, and when the witches’ prophecy comes true, his ambition takes over and prevents him from realizing that the witches have evil intentions. In Act four, Scene one, it is also evident that Macbeth becomes dependant on the witches, and on their prophecies. Prior, he does not pursue the prophecies, but the second time, he searches for the witches and demands their prophecy. In the prophecy, the first apparition is an armed head and it says, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff. / Beware the thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough” (4.1.71-73). The second apparition is a bloody child, and it says, “Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.79-82). The third apparition is a child crowned with a tree in his hands, and it says, “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care / Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. / Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.90-94). Furthermore, both the second and the third apparitions give Macbeth a false sense of safety and security because he rationalizes that no one can harm him, and that a forest can not be moved. However, Macbeth, is not aware that Macduff is not “of woman born” (4.1.80), but is born of a caesarean section and removed from his mother’s womb, as opposed to the natural means of child birth. Also, in Act five, Scene three, when Macbeth’s servant reveals to him that there are ten-thousand soldiers traveling towards his castle, Macbeth is overly confident in the witches’ prophecy and does little preparation. Macbeth says,
Bring me no more reports. Let them fly all.
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? The spirits that know
All mortal consequences have pronounced me thus:
“Fear not, Macbeth. No man that’s born of woman
Shall e'er have power upon thee.” Then fly, false thanes,
And mingle with the English epicures.
The mind I sway by and the heart I bear
Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear. (5.3.1-10)
The above passage is a clear representative of Macbeth’s confidence in the witches’ prophecy. Also,
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never called to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art? (3.5.6-10)
The above passage is very significant because Hecate admits that the witches’ intentions are evil, and that she also wishes to take part in contriving Macbeth’s downfall. In the end, it is clear that the witches’ prophecies play a large part in the downfall and deterioration of Macbeth throughout the play.
Throughout the play, it is also clear evidence that Macbeth’s sense of right and wrong, and that
his conscience worsens, as he commits more and more murders as time goes on in the play. In Act one, Scene seven, Macbeth is skeptical that he can take King Duncan’s life without any moral consequences.
If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this band and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach. (1.7.2-8)
This passage shows that Macbeth feels that there are repercussions for evil acts that extend beyond the act itself. At this time, Macbeth is unsure whether or not he should commit the murder of King Duncan,
but he is driven to prove that the witches prophecy is correct. After Macbeth murders King Duncan, he
feels extremely guilty, and Macbeth says,
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this is my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.59-62)
This passage shows how guilty Macbeth feels after he murders King Duncan, as opposed to his wife,
Lady Macbeth, who says, “My hands are of your colour, but I shame / To wear a heart so white”
(2.2.61-63). As Macbeth takes the lives of others, in addition to King Duncan, it is also evident that it becomes necessary for Macbeth to commit these acts. Furthermore, Macbeth feels that in order to keep his own mental stability, and to be free from suspicion, he must now kill his good friend, Banquo, and Macduff’s wife and children. In Act three, Scene two, Macbeth says to his wife, Lady Macbeth,
We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
She’ll close and be herself whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly. Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst; nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further. (3.2.15-28)
This passage is a clear representation of how it becomes necessary for Macbeth to commit more murders to keep the secret that he is the murderer. Furthermore, Macbeth also becomes de-sensitized
to the killings and immune to the emotional and mental consequences of his actions. Macbeth’s original
intention was to kill King Duncan, as a way of ascending to the throne. However, just as the earlier quote, “If the assassination… here” shows there are consequences to evil acts. In this case, the first evil act that Macbeth performs causes him to perform others in order to keep the secret that he kills King
Duncan. In conclusion, it is evident that violence often leads to more violence.
Macbeth’s downfall is not only a result of the witches’ evil plans, but also a result of his own
tragic character flaw which is his excessive and overpowering ambition. In Act one, Scene seven,
I have spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps
And falls on th’ other (1.7.25-28)
This passage is a clear representative of Macbeth’s overpowering ambition. The use of the words, “vaulting”, and “o’erleaps” suggests that Macbeth does not have control over his ambition.
Macbeth freely admits that his ambition to ascend the throne could very well cause a disaster, but he will commit the murder anyway. In Act one, Scene five, Lady Macbeth, herself, also refers to Macbeth’s
ambition when she says, “… thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without, / The illness should attend it” (1.5.17-20). This means Lady Macbeth recognizes that ambition is driving Macbeth.
Napoleon’s quote on ambition explains that ambition is neither good or bad, but that it is what drives the ambition that creates either good or bad. In Macbeth’s case, his ambition leads to him murdering King Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s wife and children. The “principles” as per Napoleon’s quote that drive Macbeth to disaster are his trust in the witches, which seek his demise and his own tragic
character flaw, which is his excessive ambition. In conclusion, it is clear that Macbeth has a great amount of ambition to obtain power and control, and that he will go to all lengths to achieve it, even if it means doing evil.
In the end, it is clear that Macbeth’s overpowering ambition, which also blinds him into depending on and trusting the witches and their prophecies, is the major part in the demise of Macbeth throughout the play. It is also clear that as Macbeth takes more and more lives, that he becomes de-sensitized and immune to the consequences of his evil deeds. Napoleon’s quote, “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them,” explains that ambition can be good, and that it can also be bad. It all depends on the “principles” which accompany the ambition. In Macbeth’s case, his “principles” are what leads to his own destruction.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York, NY: Spark Publishing. 2003. Paperback.
BrainyQuote. "Ambition Quotes." BrainyQuote. Xplore, 2001. Web. 07 Jan. 2013. (For Napoleon Bonaparte’s quote)