Shakespeare’s Presentation of Power in Macbeth
Oxford Dictionary defines republic as “a state in which supreme power is held by the people or their elected representatives.” On the other hand, a tyrant is a person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively and despotically. Power is a vacillating, confusing and sought after concept. The use of power has evolved from centuries. Gaining prestige, honour and reputation is one of the central motives of gaining power in human nature. Power can change people in a way that is incomprehensible. Power can make one so greedy and evil that one will do anything for it and won’t let anyone or anything stand in one’s way.
In most of the cases, the problem with power is that it corrupts. Former United States President John F. Kennedy refers to the acquisition of power through immoral behaviour in his inaugural speech: “[i]n the past, those who have sought power by riding on the back of the tiger have ended up inside” (1961). Kennedy does so to explore the concept of power and greed resulting in corruption.
Power is a perplexing idea that can become a crucial part in achieving greatness and goodness, but it can also be the deceptive illusion that will lead people to destroy themselves with an all-consuming nature of malice. Although power has the ability to be the force that drives a person to accomplish an objective, it can also become the downfall that drives corruption and selfishness, as seen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a great example of how power corrupts even at the thought of it. The purpose of this paper is to examine the character of Macbeth as a tyrant who misuses his power and thus betrays the concept of republic.
Shakespeare’s Presentation of Power in Macbeth
Attied Khawar Balwan
Department of English
University of Jammu
Oxford Dictionary defines republic as a “state in which supreme power is held by the people or their elected representatives” (643). On the other hand, a tyrant is a person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively and despotically. Power is a vacillating, confusing and sought after concept. The use of power has evolved from centuries. Gaining prestige, honour and reputation is one of the central motives of gaining power in human nature. Power can change people in a way that is incomprehensible. Power can make one so greedy and evil that one will do anything for it and won’t let anyone or anything stand in one’s way.
In most of the cases, the problem with power is that it corrupts. Former United States President John F. Kennedy refers to the acquisition of power through immoral behaviour in the seventh stanza of his inaugural speech: “… in the past, those who have sought power by riding on the back of the tiger have ended up inside.” Kennedy does so to explore the concept of power and greed resulting in corruption.
Power is a perplexing idea that can become a crucial part in achieving greatness and goodness, but it can also be the deceptive illusion that will lead people to destroy themselves with an all-consuming nature of malice. Although power has the ability to be the force that drives a person to accomplish an objective, it can also become the downfall that drives corruption and selfishness.
Nietzsche’s ethical principle of the will to power makes a claim to the egoistic nature of humanity. The doctrine asserts that all humans strive to forcibly impose their will upon others as a primal drive in their nature compels them to do so. Man will relentlessly exercise his will over others as an example of his determination, spirit and strength of character. To demonstrate and acquire his power and influence is his inherent motivation to act, even if his actions essentially seem unselfishly provoked.
According to Plato’s The Republic (380 BC), the ideal state is an autocracy, from which it follows that an ideal man is an autocrat. Socrates established his thesis by pointing out that the ideal state and the ideal man’s guiding principle is wisdom. But problem arises when an autocrat turns into a despot. A despot is a tyrant, and he is not guided by reason but the lust for power. The ideal state then ceases to be ideal. It degenerates into a tyrannical state. Socrates further emphasises the concept of tyranny when a democratic leader becomes a tyrant. Once a friend of the people, who warmly espoused their cause, becomes drunk and intoxicated with power, and fights against what he once vindicated, is goaded by the lust for power, which eats into his very vitals and completely dehumanises him.
There is a fine line between a tyrant and a king. However, despite being two different styles of ruling, both require power to reach such a state of control. While power may be great in bulk, it can be the driving factor that distinguishes a king from a tyrant. Both kings and tyrants have a considerable amount of power over their realm, but how they use it determines their image to the rest of the world. A tyrant uses his power irresponsibly and does anything he wants. A king on the other hand controls his people justly and fairly.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character Macbeth gets corrupted by the avarice for power. The way Macbeth himself gets corrupted is very evident. For example at the beginning of the play, Macbeth seems like the sort of person who wouldn’t commit the act of murder as he has a conscience. When the story begins, Macbeth truly is a "peerless kinsmen" to the king (1.4.66); however, as the story progresses others refer to him in this way only because they are oblivious to his true desires. The corruption of the principles which Macbeth initially appears to value is first made clear to the reader during a meeting with the king:
The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step.
On which I must fall down, or else overleap
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.56-61)
Here one can see that his loyalty to the king changes after he hears the witches prophecies; furthermore, the fact that he realizes that his desires are dark shows that he understands what must be done if he wishes to seize the throne, however he is still doubtful to do it. At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth is the one that manipulates Macbeth to commit the crime. Macbeth has his doubts, but Lady Macbeth coaxes him to do it. In this dialogue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Macbeth expresses his concerns and Lady Macbeth reassures him:
Macbeth: “If we should fail?”
Lady Macbeth: “...screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail”. (1.7.67-69)
Lady Macbeth then goes on to explain the plan and reassures Macbeth by saying “when in swinish sleep/ Their drenched natures lie as in death, What cannot you and I perform upon Th’unguarded Duncan? What not put upon His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt of our great quell?” (1.7.76-80). Macbeth was evidently unsure about this and needed a great deal of reassurance to finally go through with it. Even though Macbeth’s gut instinct at first was not to commit the murder, he gives in to his wife and commits the murder.
Despite that fact that Macbeth is appalled by his deed, he still goes on to kill more people in order to secure his position. His corruption is most evident when he successfully attains the throne after he murders the king, thus attaining his position of power through unethical means. Macbeth forgets about his friends and the value of their friendships and is willing to, and does kill them if it means his position as king isn’t secure, or won’t be secure. Macbeth’s priorities aren’t straight as a result of his avarice for power. Later events in the play reflect his corrupted state, and are in some way connected to his decisions as king. Some consequences he faces as results of these actions are relatively obvious towards the end of the play, however, some consequences are also shown soon after killing the king.
Macbeth's first major consequence is relatively common amongst those who fail to cope with actions induced by their corruption. The insomnia he develops following the murder of King Duncan is a result of the paranoia and fear over which he now obsesses. This is shown through the few times he does manage to sleep, and in doing so has nightmares which not only further his fears of dying unfulfilled but also his paranoia of losing the throne despite all he has done to seize it. As a result of this, Macbeth essentially surrenders his life to his obsession with retaining the throne. He initially believes that in seizing the highest authority, and therefore a considerable amount of power, he would gain immeasurable amounts of happiness; unfortunately, this is evidently not the case. Macbeth not only gains nothing, but also loses everything in his life which at first made him happy: society's respect, his wife, peace of mind and the benefits of relatively sound moral values. Macbeth himself acknowledges that his
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.44-48)
While Macbeth's nihilistic views are not applicable to society in general, they are significant to his immediate situation in that he realizes that he has become the witches’ puppet. Furthermore, Macbeth understands the situation and the possibility of death in his near future; therefore, considering that his life's purpose has become retaining his position as the King of Scotland, it is not surprising that he now views life in this way. This would in many cases be regarded as one of if not the worst consequence for a human being. Macbeth makes all his decisions in hope that they will put his mind at ease and rid him of his misery. Eventually, he realizes that death is likely in the near future, therefore denying him the opportunity to gradually improve his life. Macbeth's misery is put to rest when he, consequently, dies at the end of the play. All of Macbeth's tragic consequences clearly display the eventual penalties of corruption.
Lady Macbeth’s attitude towards power is somewhat similar to Macbeth’s. At the beginning of the play, when Lady Macbeth reads the letter from her husband telling her about the witches, it can be clearly be seen that she will be willing to risk anything to see Macbeth king. Her opinion about murder is that if it helps her to get what she wants, she is in favour of it. When Macbeth has his doubts, Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth when she calls upon “...spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts...” to “Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse/That to compunctious visitings of nature/Shake my fell purpose...” (1.5.41-42 and 45-47).
What Lady Macbeth is saying here is that it is as if she were tearing her heart out to make her husband king. Lady Macbeth’s sole purpose for murder seems to prove that she has been successful in emptying herself of human feeling. Lady Macbeth seems to lie effortlessly. One expel of this is her welcoming speech when the king arrives at their castle. This trait she has shows that all she wants is power and nothing else. Lady Macbeth believes that worrying over things you can not alter is a waste of time. This makes one believe Lady Macbeth has no guilt, but by the end of the play it is clearly understood that Lady Macbeth is not as simple as she seems and that she does indeed have guilt and fear because she kills herself to escape the horrible nightmares that torment her. Lady Macbeth is a fascinating character. She has immense strength and determination, but by the end, even her greed for power could not stand up to the guilt she faced.
Macduff is different from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macduff is Macbeth’s major opponent. Macduff opposes Macbeth because he knows what is right from wrong. Macduff never wants the crown for himself. His desire is to see the rightful king on the throne. Because Macduff is not very clever with words, he does not voice his disapproval but by his absence. He refuses to attend Macbeth’s crowning or put in an appearance at Macbeth’s feast just to keep up appearances. Macduff’s honesty is revealed when he is tested by Malcom in Act 4, Scene 3. His honesty in a play like Macbeth is like a breath of fresh air. When Macduff hears of the murder of his wife and children, he handles it quite maturely. By having the courage to feel his grief, he is able to convert his pain into a burning desire for righteous revenge. This man here is an example of what a good king would need in order to succeed. This man is humble, and doesn’t want power; all he wants is justice and fairness.
It is widely accepted that corrupted behaviour often leads the perpetrator of this behaviour to ruins; regrettably, people often fail to realize the consequences this behaviour has on the society in which they live. In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, the corruption within the title character, Macbeth, has visible effects on the country over which he eventually rules, Scotland. This is observed through the multiple changes in Scotland when control over the country shifts from King Duncan to Macbeth.
Under Macbeth's rule, Scotland falls off the ‘Chain of Being’ which results in the loss of proper leadership and prosperity in the country. During the time period in which this play takes place, the basis of the people's ideology of the world is the ‘Chain of Being’. This allows them to believe that all beings in the universe are ordered based on their superiority. This order also allows them to assume the king is God's representative on Earth because he is closest to God in the order. Most people in Scotland would obey Macbeth as a result of their oversimplified views of the world, and expect him to lead the country. Therefore, when Macbeth becomes King through unethical means, Scotland falls with him due to his ineffectiveness as a leader.
One can better understand the odd situation when Macbeth becomes king through concern expressed by an old man to Ross that the situation in Scotland "'[t]is unnatural" (2.4.12). The old man is explaining that natural order according to the "Chain of Being" has been altered in a manner which is detrimental towards the successful progression of the country. Several characters show concern regarding Macbeth's ability to lead while claiming that under his leadership Scotland "weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash / [i]s added to her wounds (4.3.46-47).
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is a great example of how power corrupts even at the thought of it. In the form of Macbeth he has created a tyrant who misuses his power which is gained through unethical means, and betrays the concept of republic by ruling despotically.
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