Bravery and Manhood
For Macbeth, bravery is the most important trait of manhood. Lady Macbeth challenges this by emasculating him, which spurs him on, and even he admits that he has "no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself and falls on th' other side ". Without her goading, and his hamartia (fatal flaw), ambition, would he have committed the murder?
To look pale, or to have a white heart, meant to lack courage. She uses these taunts, as well as a reference to a cat in a tale (adage) who wanted the fish, but was afraid to get its paws wet:
Was the hope drunk Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since? And wakes it now, to look so green and pale At what it did so freely? From this time Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard (40) To be the same in thine own act and valor As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would, ” (45) Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?
Lady Macbeth considers bravery to be a masculine trait too, and famously calls on dark spirits to "unsex me here" and to fill her "with direst cruelty". She asks Macbeth, "What beast was ’t, then, That made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it, then you were a man". And worse:
I have given suck, and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this.
The witches are fascinating, and are usually called the Weird Sisters. They are of ambiguous gender, and are unflatteringly portrayed as having beards. In fact, they may not even be truly alive as they seem to be able to vanish into thin air. They do not ever actually do anything but talk, but their doublespeak and manipulation of language is instrumental in Macbeth's downfall. To what extent is an interesting topic for discussion.
Fair is foul and foul is fair
This couplet means: good is bad and bad is good and confirms that they are violating the natural order of things.
This is mirrored later by nature rebelling against Macbeth's heinous regicide - horses eating horses, and other strange occurences. Kingship was considered a divine right, and Macbeth interrupted the natural order of things when he kills Duncan. Macbeth is immediately damned and cannot say "amen" after the deed.
Banquo seems to be able to read them better, and knows that they tell just enough of the truth to draw us in, when he says:
And oftentimes to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths
The witches represent evil and demonic powers, but they never actually force Macbeth to do anything; he is free to resist them. Unfortunately he finds what they have to say compelling, and seeks them put the second time. They recognize his degeneration when he visits them by referring to him as "Something".
By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, Whoever knocks.
Tragic heroes are thought to suffer from hubris, which means excessive pride. This becomes more and more evident in Macbeth as the play progresses. In the beginning he is content to wear his praise and new title as Thane of Cawdor:
We will proceed no further in this business. He hath honored me of late, and I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people, Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, (35) Not cast aside so soon.
Soon after Lady Macbeth convinces him to proceed and "Look like th’ innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t", we see the mental strain becomes to much for him in the famous dagger soliloquy, when there is in fact no dagger there at all:
Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. (35) I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain? (40) I see thee yet, in form as palpable As this which now I draw. Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going, And such an instrument I was to use. Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses, (45) Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, Which was not so before...
This mental strain is mirrored by Lady Macbeth later on in the play when she cannot wash the blood from her hands, when there is obviously no blood there:
Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
Her pride has left her, and her guilt has become so bad that she is now seeing things. In contrast, after "Macbeth had murdered sleep", which is what he hears after he kills Duncan, his spiral into madness ends after he sees Banquo's ghost shake its "gory locks" at him at his banquet. This is the climax of the play, and his star begins its descent because the thanes have been privy to his very public breakdown. It is after this point that his confidence revives, but not his conscience.
I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
The scene with Lady Macduff and her son is definitely Macbeth's lowest point. Shakespeare intensifies the horror by beginning the scene with an endearing scene between mother and child before the murderers enter and brutally kill them. The son is portrayed as witty and intelligent in the verbal sparring:
LADY MACDUFF Now, God help thee, poor monkey! But how wilt thou do for a father?
SON If he were dead, you’d weep for him. If you would not, it were a good sign that I should quickly have a new father.
LADY MACDUFF Poor prattler, how thou talk’st!
Shakespeare solves the problem of having dead bodies pile up on the stage by having Lady Macduff run off stage screaming "Murder" so that the audience can imagine her gruesome death, which is more effective than seeing it.
The question of Macduff's culpability in their deaths is often looked at by critics. Lady Macduff suggests he is a coward for going off to England to join Malcolm, and even Malcolm tests him as he is surprised he is there and left his family behind, but it seems more likely that he simply did not think Macbeth would stoop so low. His reaction to their deaths shows the depth of his love, and is a foil to Macbeth's bloody version of manhood:
All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam (225) At one fell swoop?
MALCOLM Dispute it like a man. Fight it like a man.
MACDUFF I shall do so, But I must also feel it as a man.
to be evasive, unclear, or confusing; to obscure
Language is used cleverly to manipulate Macbeth to his downfall, especially by the witches and Lady Macbeth. The witches are particularly good at obfuscation, because what they say never turns out to be untrue, but neither is it straightforward and clear.
The first apparition, a head in armour, tells him: "Beware Macduff".
The second apparition, a bloody child, tells him "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth."
The final apparition, a crowned child with a tree in his hand tells him "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him."
When he pushes the witches to tell him if Banquo's issue will be kings, eight kings parade across the stage, the last one holds a mirror in his hand, followed by BANQUO.
The witches and evil forces they conjure up have thus given him false hope, but without lying to him. The wood does march on Dunsinane when Malcolm and the English forces use branches to mask their numbers, and Macduff is not of woman born, having been "from his mother's womb untimely ripped".
Lady Macbeth's Suicide
Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!
Lady Macbeth's mental state degenerates, which is mirrored in her speech. She no longer speaks in blank verse, but in broken snatches of prose and childish ditty:
The thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?
At the beginning of the play Macbeth calls her his "partner in greatness". This not only indicates that they have ambitions to become great, but also that they have a close marriage. By the time he decides to kill Banquo, Macbeth is already a solo agent, and at the end of the play they are not even shown on stage together. Macbeth still cares about her, or he would not have asked the doctor to heal her, but the doctor cannot because "more needs she the divine than the physician" (she needs a priest not a doctor).
She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, (20) Creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player (25) 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.
This passage is famous, and reminiscent of Ecclesiastes in the Bible when Solomon bemoans life as "meaningless" and "useless". His stance at this point is either callous, derived from depression, or philosophical. At any rate, it is not the kind of response one might expect from a husband grieving his wife.
Catharsis is a term Aristotle used to describe the purging of fear and pity the audience feel at the denouement (unravelling and resolution). This is when the tragic hero recognizes the truth of his situation and must die, allowing the audience to release or purge the fear/pity they have built up as they recognize themselves in the protagonist. Are we not all ambitious? How far would you go to secure what you want?
Turn, hellhound, turn!
Macbeth's realisation and recognition scene is very satisfying for the audience who are looking forward to seeing his arrogance quashed:
I bear a charmèd life, which must not yield to one of woman born.
Macduff responds by explaining how he was ripped from his mother, and was not born naturally:
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripped.
Macbeth realises the witches trickery and doublespeak (double sense), and from here his "charmed life" is not secure:
Accursèd be that tongue that tells me so, for it hath cowed my better part of man! And be these juggling fiends no more believed, that palter with us in a double sense, that keep the word of promise to our ear, And break it to our hope. I’ll not fight with thee.
Macbeth fights Macduff, and loses. His life is summed up unceremoniously by Malcolm who calls him:
... this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen...