Published in 1623, nearly twenty years after it was first performed, Macbeth was written shortly after James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne, and Shakespeare’s play clearly supports his divine right to the throne. Shakespeare was inspired by Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of the reigns of Duncan and Macbeth (A.D. 1034-57), but the invention of the framework of the witches who tempt both Banquo and Macbeth with prophecies of greatness are his own.
A story of witchcraft, murder and vengeance, Macbeth can be read as a morality play which warns against the dangers of ambitious power. Clearly, Macbeth is a figure whose ambition and hubris result in his fall from power, echoing the biblical story of the fall from grace; however, the play also expresses a profound fear of feminine power as subversive and destructive.
The very text of Macbeth itself reflects the single-minded ambition of its main character. With only 2,100 lines, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, and with the exception of such characters as the porter, is devoid of the subplots which characterise Shakespearean tragedies.
Coleridge has noted that the play begins at an aggressive pace with Hamlet‘s ‘gradual ascent from the simplest forms of conversation to the language of impassioned intellect’, and Bradley follows by describing the beginning of the play as one in which ‘the action burst into wild life’. Shakespeare’s typical tragic worldview represents a complex human world of infinite variety. Macbeth, in contrast, is sparse and single-minded because it is a symbolic play which resorts to soliloquy and symbolic locales to echo the dichotomous world of the Christian morality plays.
The focus of Macbeth,
like that of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Richard III, is an egotistical man with measureless will power who murders his way to the crown and, in doing so, alienates himself from the very world which he wishes to rule. It is commonly said by Shakespearean critics that Macbeth’s tragic flaw is ambition, and he himself admits that he has no drive but ‘vaulting ambition’, but it is ambition without reason or application.
He does not, like Shakespeare’s Tamburlaine, believe it to be ‘passing brave’ to be sovereign king and ride in triumph through his kingdom, or even desire the power which he would then have over his comrades. Indeed, the sole drive behind Macbeth’s ambition seems to be the act of competition itself, which is clearly shown by his celebrated success on the battlefield.
The audience is introduced to Macbeth through the description by the Sergeant in Act I Scene II. The description of the battle scene and Macbeth’s eruptive entrance into the horde of ‘kerns and gallowglasses’ reveals Macbeth’s ambition and the violence of his power.
Brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name –
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel
Which smok’d with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion, carv’d out his passage
Till he fac’d the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements (I.ii. 16-23)
Macbeth’s fierce interruption into
The fray and his ruthless domination on the battlefield are indicative of his insatiable thirst for power and status in the political arena. The rhetoric of the soldier’s description paints a picture of an epic struggle of good versus evil, with the defiant Macdonwald and the ‘villanies of nature’ swarming like flies, and Macbeth’s interruption is both violently brutal and magnificent. This introduction to Macbeth is fitting, for he is a character of decisive action and agency, and his ruthless domination of the battlefield foreshadows his ruthless domination of the political scene as well.
However, unlike Macbeth himself, his wife does not have agency of her own, and must enact her own desires and drive through the action of her husband. Her power lies in the power to persuade, and indeed it is argued that the female characters in Shakespeare’s play hold the real power in the action of the play itself.
In Act 1 Scene 7, Lady Macbeth tries to drive her husband’s courage to the sticking point by questioning his manhood. She mocks him with the reminder that it was his initial idea to plan the murders, and if he fails to follow through he is weak and impotent. ‘What beast was’t then / That made you break this enterprise to me?’ (I.vii. 47-48), suggesting that it was Macbeth’s own evil mind which began the murderous plan, and the witches manipulated his ambitious nature rather than revealing him to be the victim of fate. Lady Macbeth herself describes her husband:
I do fear thy nature:
Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holly; wouldst not play false
And yet wouldst wrongly win
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal (I.v.14-28)
Lady Macbeth recognises that
her husband has the potential for great power, but lacks the fundamental hard nature and cunning wit to achieve the high reaches for which they both aspire. She, however, has the necessary ruthless nature and calculating wit and vows to help her husband in his ascension to power. The characterisation of the relationship between Lord and Lady Macbeth, like that of the witches and Macbeth, reveals an anxiety of female power as manipulative and subversive.
Macbeth is a murderer in thought if not in action at this point, and the lady acknowledges openly that his ‘milk of human kindness’ will not dissuade him from attempting regicide, but only from ‘catching the nearest way’, that, executing it himself. Lady Macbeth, coming upon her husband as he finishes his soliloquy full of cold calculation of his success rate, questions his manhood as an attempt to persuade him to action. ‘I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none When you durst do it, then you were a man’ (I.vii. 46-7, 49).
Lady Macbeth draws him on with the idea of decisive action, countering his doubts of the great taboos ‘against the deed’. Lacking the authority to both independently gain political and social power, and to enact the murders necessary to further their position, Lady Macbeth wields her powers of persuasion to manoeuvre her husband.
According to Janet Adelman, ‘the play strikingly constructs the fantasy of subjection to maternal malevolence in two parts, in the witches and in Lady Macbeth’ so that ‘what the witches suggest about the vulnerability of men to female power on the cosmic plane, Lady Macbeth doubles on the psychological plane’ (Adelman 97).
Critics have noted the parallel between Lady Macbeth and the witches in their attempt to subversively gain power over the male characters. In Macbeth, manhood is tied to ideals of strength and the force of will. Lady Macbeth uses the idea of manhood to manipulate her husband, knowing that in his desperate attempt to prove his manhood and advance politically he will do anything she tells him. Macbeth, under the influence of female power of both his wife and the ‘weird sisters’, murders Duncan, but his increasingly violent form of power is an attempt to escape from this manipulative feminine influence.
Macbeth carries out the murderous intent which Lady Macbeth so shrewdly articulates, and despite his efforts to establish his own ambitious power, he embodies her fantasy of subversive power. And yet, Macbeth is unaware of his own manipulation and rejects the women in his life. To be dependent on a woman is to be threatened with a loss of autonomous selfhood, in essence emasculating him and stripping him of his source of masculine, martial power.
Lady Macbeth, paralleled with the enigmatic power of the three witches, is representative of the culture’s deepest fear of the subversive and destructive power of the feminine. Common critical opinion reduces Lady Macbeth to ‘a fierce, cruel woman, brandishing a couple of daggers, and inciting her husband to butcher a poor old king’ (Jameson 369), and this sense of self-interested manipulation has shifted the culpability for the murder of the King away from Macbeth to the women whispering in his ear.
Beyond the obvious concern with the problematics of political power as divinely bestowed, Macbeth is a play that explores the nature of masculine and feminine power. Lady Macbeth becomes the psychological force over her husband in order to arouse the initiative and violence for the ‘deed’, and in the act deprives Macbeth of his masculine power.
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Adelman, J. (1987) Born of Woman: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance. ed. by M. Garber. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 90-121.
Jameson, A. (1979) Characteristics of Women: Moral, Political and Historical, London: George Bell and Sons.
Shakespeare, W. (1997) Macbeth. ed. by A. R. Braunmuller. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.