Was Macbeth responsible for his own downfall?
Eleventh century Scotland was a violent and troubled country. Feuding families and clans fought to control trade and territory. The castle was the powerbase for each warlord (Thane). Political murder and revenge killings were commonplace. Marauding Vikings and Norsemen raided constantly.
Macbeth was born in 1005, son of a great family that ruled Moray and Ross. Macbeths father was murdered by his own cousins. He then married Gruach, granddaughter to a high king of Scotland. They never had any children and there is no evidence of the influence that Lady Macbeth had over her husband.
Whilst the play is based loosely on fact, Shakespeare altered some of the events so that they fitted the play. For example, he invented Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and death, the banquet scene and Banquo’s Ghost as well as most of the cauldron scene. Shakespeare also changed Duncan from an ineffectual king into an old and revered ruler and he also ignored Macbeth’s ten years of good rule.
The first major event in the play is Act 1 Scene 1 where the witches talk about meeting Macbeth on the heath. The appearance of the witches early on in the play immediately establishes the influence of the supernatural. My quote supporting this statement is below. It’s when the third witch says.
“There to meet with Macbeth”
This suggests that the witches knew that Macbeth was taking that route back to Duncans castle and that they would be waiting for him on the way. How would the witches know where to meet Macbeth if he hadnt told them unless they were supernatural?
Secondly, the next event in the play is where the sergeant comes into the kings chamber reporting that the rebellion led by MacDonwald has been crushed. However, Sweno, king of Norway has launched an attack, which both Macbeth and Banquo are helping to repel. King Duncan then pronounces the death sentence over the treacherous Thane of Cawdor and says that Macbeth shall have his title. In this event, we first learn that Macbeth is going to be given more power as the Thane of Cawdor than he ever had when he was Thane of Glamis. The next quote shows Duncan deciding to give Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor.
And with his former title greet Macbeth
It will be this taste of power together with the promise of the witches prophecies, which eventually convinces Macbeth to murder King Duncan.
Overall, the characters that were most responsible for influencing Macbeth are the witches and Lady Macbeth. They both play on his fatal flaws (ambition and greed) in order to cause what they want i.e. chaos for the witches and becoming queen for Lady Macbeth.
If Macbeth can be called a tragic hero, he has to fulfil certain criteria. These criteria are shown below along with why Macbeth successfully fulfils them.
qThat they have to be of high birth and position
Macbeth fulfils this criterion by being a kinsman of the king and also being Thane of Glamis.
“By Sinel’s death I know I am Thane of Glamis”
qShould have some good qualities
He does have some good qualities by being brave, honourable and heroic as demonstrated when the sergeant enters Duncans court and says
For brave Macbeth well he deserves that name
Doubly redoubles strokes upon the foe
Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
qShould have a tragic flaw that’s played on by circumstances. This flaw must bring about his downfall and bring about the sympathy of the audience
Macbeth fulfils the first part of this criterion by being greedy and ambitious. These flaws are exploited by the witch’s prophecies and his wifes lust for power. The two groups of people exploit his weaknesses and it results in him killing King Duncan. When killed by Macduff, his death was caused by him being king, which in turn was caused by his ambition and greed.
So, I believe that Macbeth was a tragic hero as he could have been a good king later in his life if, his ambition and greed hadn’t been played on by the witches, who first made him think of killing the king through their prophecies.
As to who else, other than Macbeth is responsible for what happened, the obvious choices are the witches and Lady Macbeth. For if the witches hadn’t met with Macbeth and hadn’t given him the prophecies (See the quote below) then he wouldn’t have even thought about murdering the king.
“All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!”
“All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!”
“All hail Macbeth! That shalt be King hereafter”
Lady Macbeth is also responsible for the turn of events, as it was she who finally convinced Macbeth that murdering King Duncan was the easiest way to fulfil the witch’s third and final prophecy of Macbeth being king. If Lady Macbeth hadn’t read Macbeth’s letter to her, then she wouldn’t have had the idea of calling up the demons, and therefore not have been able to convince Macbeth to murder the king.
Shakespeare wrote about the witches to inject an atmosphere of evil into the play. People around the time when he wrote Macbeth found witches objects of morbid and fevered fascination, so including them would help to add to the tension when the play was performed to an audience.
People also feared witches and so they could also have been included to frighten the audience. The only exception to this is Act 3 Scene 5, which probably wasn’t written by Shakespeare, as the lines are rhyming couplets, a technique rarely used by Shakespeare. This scene was written at the time when witches were less feared, as, since the witches were feared at the time, it wouldnt be appropriate to have them on a stage singing songs before they disappeared. This scene was probably included because the audience liked seeing the witches on the stage.
The other reason that I can think of for the witches being included is to try and establish a supernatural atmosphere to the play. In fact, many of the people who watched Macbeth saw in it the signs of a man and woman sized by demonic possession because of the way
that they both acted throughout the play.
The supernatural element would also add to atmosphere in the theatre when the play was performed.
The role that Banquo fills in the play is that of a comparison to Macbeth. You could look at Banquo and see what Macbeth was like before the three witches gave him the prophecies that played on his ambition and greed and compare him to what he was like before.
This becomes most evident during Macbeth and Banquo’s conversation in Act 2 Scene 1, just before Macbeth is to murder Duncan. During this part of the scene, Banquo says
“In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchis’d and allegiance clear
I shall be counsell’d”
This means that he will remain honourable and loyal to King Duncan even though Macbeth tells him it would be in his best interests to follow him in murdering the king and that he could give Banquo a very large amount of power.
At the start of the play, if anyone suggested that following anyone other than the king would be beneficial to Macbeth he wouldn’t have followed him or her; he might even have reported it to the king or killed the person suggesting it for treason. Now, it is he making the suggestion that they commit treason as shown in the next paragraph.
If you shall cleave to my consent, when tis,
It shall make honour for you
This is something that he wouldn’t have thought about it at the start, when both he and Banquo were loyal to King Duncan.
The easiest way for all the events in the play to be averted would have been for Macbeth to forget all about the witch’s prophecies. However, if he had done this, there wouldn’t have been a play, so this isn’t a realistic option.
A more feasible option would have been for Macbeth not to write the letter to Lady Macbeth informing her of the prophecies. This would have changed the events in the play, as; Macbeth had given up the idea of murdering Duncan until his wife convinced him that it was the easiest way of fulfilling the third prophecy. The quote below shows Lady Macbeth trying to convince Macbeth to murder King Duncan.
“But screw you courage to the sticking-place
And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep,”
The death of Banquo could have been averted by Banquo himself sacrificing his honour and joining with Macbeth when he was given the opportunity in Act 2 Scene 1. As a result of him not agreeing to this, Macbeth arranged to have him murdered in Act 3 Scene 3. The next quote shows Macbeth arranging to have Banquo murdered.
“It is concluded: Banquo, thy soul’s flight
If it find heaven, must find it out to-night”
The view of the audience to Macbeth’s crime of regicide would have been horror. The Elizabethans and the Stuarts believed that murdering a king was the worst offence that could ever be committed, as it would upset the natural balance of the world. Shakespeare shows this in Act 2 Scene 4, where Ross and an Old man discuss the unnatural events that happened on the night of King Duncan’s murder.
A quote from Act 2 Scene 4 is shown in the next paragraph.
“A falcon, towering in her pride of place
Was by a mousing owl hawked and killed”
As a result of the people of the time believing that a king’s power came directly from God, killing a king was just like committing a crime against God. Because of these beliefs, there was no way that Macbeth could drive off the English army around Dunsinane, as he would be seen to have been succeeding in committing a crime against God.
This would have been unacceptable to the people who lived at the time when Macbeth was written.
For my conclusion, on if Macbeth were responsible for his own downfall, the answer would have to be yes.
My first reason for this is that if he hadn’t ingrained the witches prophecies on his mind and been unable to forget about them, then, the idea to murder King Duncan would never have crossed Macbeth’s mind and he wouldnt have been so easily persuaded to commit regicide. My evidence for Macbeth being unable to forget the prophecies is shown in the next quote from Act 2 Scene 1, where he is speaking to Banquo.
“I dreamt last night of the weird sisters”
Secondly, Lady Macbeth influenced Macbeth far too much. If Macbeth hadn’t paid as much attention to his wife urging him to murder King Duncan, he probably wouldn’t have done the deed. Therefore, he is responsible for his own downfall, as his wife was able to convince him to murder the king. If Macbeths willpower had been stronger and his wife so unrelenting in her pursuit of power, he might have been able to resist the opportunity that had presented itself. The next piece of evidence is a quote from Act 1 Scene 7, showing Lady Macbeth asserting herself over Macbeth in an attempt to convince him to murder Duncan.
“Who dares receive it other?
As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar
Upon his death”
Thirdly, when Banquo tried to help Macbeth come to terms with the witches prophecies, he was ignored and eventually killed by a Macbeth who was by now, totally paranoid and unemotional, as shown in the quote below, just after his wife has died.
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word”
If Macbeth had taken more notice of Banquo trying to help him, instead of having him killed, then he might have been able to recover from the effect that the prophecies of the witches had on him i.e. making him power crazy. The evidence of Macbeth having Banquo killed is shown below, where Banquo dies.
“O, treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly
Thou mayst revenge. O slave!”
Lastly, when Macbeth heard the second set of witches prophecies shown below, he felt invincible.
“Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff”
“The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth”
“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him”
If Macbeth hadn’t felt so confident that he could never be killed, then he would have taken more precautions about his safety, thereby ensuring that he would look after his subjects better. This would make sure that one of them wouldn’t go to Dunsinane with the intent of killing him. The evidence for Macbeth’s overconfidence is shown in the next two paragraphs.
“Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane
I cannot taint with fear”
“Fear not, Macbeth; no man born of woman
Shall e’er have power over thee.'”
Overall, Macbeth was a man that allowed himself to be manipulated by people such as his wife that were crazy for power. They played on his weak points of ambition and greed to try and advance their own position. If Macbeth had more willpower, then the events of the play wouldn’t have happened.