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The Characterization of Macbeth in Relation to the Development of Scotland in William Shakespeare’s
A German physicist named Wener Heisenberg made a revolutionary breakthrough while observing particles at an atomic level. His observation was, at the same time, revolutionary and somewhat disappointing. He concluded that he could never accurately observe the particles, due to the fact that whenever he attempted to observe the particles, he inevitably altered them in some minute way. His conclusion is reminiscent of the proverb, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Historians and anthropologists both agree with this proverb. Historians have another proverb, which indirectly comes to the same conclusion as the original proverb does: “Power corrupts good men”. They use as examples, people like Cromwell and Robespierre. These rulers of England and France respectively, started their campaigns with seemingly good intentions. They were both ushered in under the name of Democracy. However, history shows a similarity in both cases: the power and ambition of ruling a nation clouded their intentions, and resulted in both their own corruption, and chaos for their countries. These conclusions create a paradox in both cases. With Mr. Heisenberg, the particles he was attempting to observe, are unobservable, a realization that came through intense observation! Some historians have concluded that at times, seemingly good leaders are corrupted by the same intense ambition that drove their good intentions! A clear example of how power and ambition corrupts is demonstrated in the fictional tragedy of the Scottish ruler, Macbeth. Macbeth starts out a wise and noble general. He is loyal to his king. He has integrity, and the respect of all. However, once the notion of royal power is introduced by the Witches, the dam is broken and a cascade of corruption follows. This corruption leads to the murder of Duncan and Banquo by Macbeth. Once the thrown is obtained by Macbeth, more corruption ensues leading to his fear and neuroses. This destructive combination of fear and corruption leads to a wake of destruction for Scotland. Debuting in the play with auspiciousness, Macbeth slowly becomes corrupted by his new-found power, ambition and, most importantly, his fear, leaving in his wake, a destructive path for Scotland.
The corruption of Macbeth’s character is a major theme in the tragedy of the play. Had Macbeth been corrupted from the beginning of the play, he would be perceived as a vicious cold-hearted man, thus leaving the reader feeling no pity towards him by the end of the play. The fact that “Macbeth” recounts the story of a benevolent individual corrupted by his ambition and fear, creates the theme of a “good boy gone bad”. This style of drama has remained popular, and has inspired many plays and modern day motion pictures. There is no doubt that Macbeth debuted the play with auspiciousness. In only the second scene the reader is introduced to both the heroic deeds of Macbeth, and the respect people hold for him. This conversation summarizes the emotions felt for the once “valiant” Macbeth:
SERGEANT: Doubtful it stood,
As two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald-
Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villainies of nature
Do swarm upon him -from the Western Isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied;
And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak;
For brave Macbeth -well he deserves that name-
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valor’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave,
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.
DUNCAN: O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!
He is truly regarded with prestige! Later in the same act the respect shown to Macbeth, by a naive Duncan, is again overwhelming:
DUNCAN: True, worthy Banquo! He is full so valiant,
And in his commendations I am fed;
It is a banquet to me. Let’s after him,
Whose care is gone before to bid us welcome.
It is a peerless kinsman. Flourish. [Exeunt].
This praise is not without merit. Although he finishes the play corrupted, Macbeth does debut with worthy intentions. Macbeth truly debuts the play with auspiciousness, which in a sense, makes his downfall so much more tragic.
Macbeth’s ambition takes control of his noble qualities however, and creates a destructive path for both himself and Scotland as a whole. The seeds of his ambition are planted even before the Witches’s first prophecy. While the Witches are predicting Macbeth’s future it is evident that the notion of Duncan’s murder has already crossed his mind:
MACBETH: [Aside.] This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
In the preceding quotation, it is evident that Macbeth has contemplated the murder of Duncan by the familiarity in which he describes the murder: “[...] that suggestion/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair [...]” (I.III.134-35). However, the fact that Macbeth has not acted on his ambition simply contrasts his initial character with that of his final. Macbeth’s personal integrity is further lost as this horrid image manifests itself into a reality. Macbeth’s desire to rule Scotland overpowers his personal integrity and auspiciousness, thus letting him justify his murdering Duncan. This event’s significance is two-fold. First it proves how his ambition leads to a path of destruction for Scotland, for they have lost a great ruler (which even Macbeth admits to):
MACBETH: [...] Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off [...]
As well, it shows how Macbeth’s ambition has eroded his personal integrity. Where as before, the idea of murder was a ghostly idea for Macbeth, his “vaulting” (I.vii.26) ambition has led to the actual murder of Duncan. This is in sharp contrast to the Macbeth of several scenes earlier.
It would be thought that Macbeth’s ambition would relent once the thrown was obtained. It would be thought that the thrown, which Macbeth so yearned to sit upon, would be used for noble causes and not be cause of turmoil to Scotland. This is not the case. Although Macbeth did debut with auspiciousness, the ambition that drove him down the path towards being king, combined with the power he obtains with the crown, leads to his personal demise as well as that of Scotland. The circumstances that Macbeth has experienced, on the way to becoming king, have left him cold, and far from the benevolent despot one would have predicted at the beginning of the play. Historians and anthropologists both agree that the fate of a nation lies in the personal events of its ruler’s life. “The force that addicts the man also affects the whole society in which he lives. The evil created by the Witches inspires mistrust throughout the world of the play.” (Boyce 392) This is indeed the case in “Macbeth”. When Macbeth reaches the thrown, he is no longer pure and noble. On the contrary: he has deep rooted fears that lead him to commit illegal acts (the murder of Banquo).
His fear is not the only factor that leads to his demise, and turmoil for Scotland. As well, his ambition has pushed Macbeth to murder Duncan, and has forced him to cross the line between good and evil. This imaginary line (made even more real in the play by the Witches) fades the more times one crosses it. By the time Macbeth has reached the throne this line has disappeared, leaving him free from his conscience. This leads to his ruling of Scotland without benevolence or care, which in turn leads to a destructive path:
The travails of Scotland while governed by the evil usurper are clearly presented, especially in the conversation among Malcolm, Macduff, and Rosse in 4.3 [IV.iii]. The fate of Scotland is a parallel development to Macbeth’s descent into evil. This strengthens our awareness of his decline, but also stresses the important lesson that the immoral behavior of a society’s leader is a dangerous disease, capable of producing widespread catastrophe. (Cahn 392)
In other words, by the time Macbeth reaches the thrown, he is evil. This directly translates into destruction and turmoil for Scotland.
Both Macbeth’s fear and ambition are directly reminiscent of the French revolutionary Robespierre. In revolutionary France, Robespierre lead the Commission for Public Safety. This Commission for Public “Safety” was more like a commission in charge of a systematic purging of Left Wing thinkers. Robespierre feared for the revolution, much the same way Macbeth fears for himself. His purging of the enemy is reminiscent of Macbeth’s purging of Banquo and Macduff’s family. In both cases the public use of violence leads to a negative influence on their respective countries. Macbeth’s fear, which has saved his life many times in battle, and his ambition (also vital for a soldier), have ironically led to both his self-destruction and the corruption of what he cares about most: Scotland.
Coles Editorial Board. “Textual Notes.” In Shakespeare, William. Macbeth
“Macbeth.” Shakespeare. 1966.
The Total Study Edition. Edited by Coles Editorial Board. Toronto: Coles Publishing Company, n.d.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtree Press, 1990
Cahn, Victor L. Shakespeare The Playwright. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. The Total Study Edition. Edited by Coles
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