‘Macbeth cannot be considered a tragic hero: he is a weak man manipulated by others and he does not reach a state of self-knowledge at the end of the play.’ To what extent do you agree with this view of the play?
To a certain extent, Macbeth’s actions are a result of the persuasion and his manipulation by the hands of his Shakespearean counterparts. But it is not fair to say that he was a weak man who was incapable of making his own decisions. Rather, he was a man whose own personal beliefs became actions upon seeing similar views from those close to him. Through its exploration of universal themes, such as the deceptive nature of appearances, the role of fate in determining our lives and how ruthless quests for power blind us to reason, Shakespeare shows how Macbeth’s ultimate undoing was a result of ambition and tragedy, not manipulation and weakness.
It is impossible to find the true nature of a person through his outwards appearance, as demonstrated in Macbeth. We see many characters misjudged and overlooked. This theme is foreshadowed in the famous lines ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’ (Act 1, Scene 1). The use of paradox, alliteration and repetition add to the spell-like imagery of the Witches’ lines. This seemingly nonsensical phrase evokes the question ‘is all what it seems?’ and is a recurring motif in the play. Macbeth’s first line is ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’, alluding to the mystical incantation of the Witches and the theme of misleading appearances. This theme is further highlighted by King Duncan’s failure to recognise the treacherous nature of the Thane of Cawdor, and later on, Macbeth. King Duncan states ‘He (Thane of Cawdor) was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust’ (Act 1, Scene 4). The use of dramatic irony and the juxtaposition of ‘gentleman’ and Cawdor’s treason emphasises the naivety of King Duncan and his inability to look past outward facades. King Duncan’s ignorance can be seen again when Lady Macbeth tells the King that ‘All our service, in every point twice done and then done, double’ (Act 1, Scene 6). Not only is this dramatically ironic that she tells him this just before Macbeth murders the King, but it also alludes to the Witches’ famous lines ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ (Act 1, Scene 4), showing that Macbeth and his wife’s motives are dubious and witch-like. This then demonstrates the importance of ignoring appearance, as this caused King Duncan’s downfall.
Perhaps if Macbeth had disregarded the Witches’ prophecies, then he would not have chosen his path. Perhaps if he had not taken them as reality then he would have been safe. But this does not mean that the Witches manipulated Macbeth. Due to the emergence of deceptive appearances, it is extremely difficult for one to know what truly is reality. Macbeth was not a political pawn in the Witches’ game of chaos, but was an unfortunate victim of his uncertain reality; spurred on by his undying ambition and the mistakes of other similar victims, especially the mistakes of King Duncan.
Not only was Macbeth a victim of his uncertain reality, he was also a victim of fate, his unfortunate future unravelling before him. Macbeth questions whether fate or human will determines a man’s future. Macbeth relies on the role of fate to positively influence his life, saying ‘If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me without my stir’ (Act 1, Scene 3). This suggests that Macbeth does not see the Witches prophecy as fate but ‘chance’. The personification of chance shows how Macbeth is relying on this chance, but later decides that chance is not enough to get him the throne and so murders Duncan. This suggests that Macbeth was not helpless but was able to control some of his future. On the other hand, Macbeth cannot dictate everything. This can be seen when Banquo’s ghost appears, when Macbeth muses ‘It will have blood they say; blood will have blood’ (Act 3, Scene 4). The personification and repetition of blood and its spell-like diction emphasises Macbeth’s fear. Also, the use of synecdoche and metaphor show that Macbeth recognises his violent nature and how it would create countless enemies.
It seemed that the Witches had known his future, however Macbeth deliberates and broods before taking action. Macbeth’s reflections suggest that he controls at least part of his future. In this sense, he is not a weak man manipulated by his wife or the witches, but a man who makes decisions and has control of his destiny.
Macbeth makes many decisions regarding his future, one being the relentless quest for power, blinding him to reason and morals. However, this search for power blinded him to reason and quickly turned into a descent to evil. After Macbeth kills King Duncan, he asks ‘Whence is that knocking’ (Scene 2, Act 2). This is a religious and contextual allusion to knocking on Hell’s door. This is further explored through the Porter, who symbolises the Gate Keeper to Hell. This shows that Macbeth’s ruthless, murderous and immoral quest for power has drawn him to evil and to Hell. Furthermore, we can see how Macbeth has been blinded to reason when we see the results of the regicide ‘A falcon tow’ring in her pride of place was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed’ (Act 2, Scene 4). The use of animal imagery detailing unnatural acts highlights the perversion of nature that has resulted from the disruption of the Great Chain of Being. Another perversion that has resulted from the regicide is the degradation of Lady Macbeth’s mental state. She sleepwalks, saying in her sleep ‘Here’s the smell of blood again; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this hand’ (Act 5, Scene 1). The use of hyperbole emphasises her insanity as a result of her ambition and lust for power.
Macbeth has an insatiable lust for power, and upon stealing the throne, becomes incredibly afraid of losing it. He has always wanted to be King, emphasised by how he was ‘started’ after hearing the Witches’ initial prediction. He never let anyone persuade him otherwise, and so was not manipulated or controlled by anyone in his quest for power. He listened to and took advice from other influential people but ultimately made the last decision. It was his own choices and lust for power that led to his moral decay.
In conclusion, Macbeth was not a weak man manipulated by others to further their ulterior motives. He was an independent man who made his own decisions, however, morally misguided they were. Shakespeare has shown us this through his exploration of universal and timeless themes, such as the tendency of appearances to be misleading, the role of fate in shaping our lives and the how an insatiable lust for power can only blind us to reason and moral judgement. Macbeth, as a tragic hero, resonates with us today because of his immediate fall from grace and status, leaving a once great man in ruins and destitution.
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