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How does Shakespeare explore responses to rules and conventions in Macbeth?

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Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ is set in the patriarchal society of Scotland 1040. Written as a tribute to King James I in 1606, it was first performed by Shakespeare’s company of actors at court marking the visit of James’s brother-in-law – King Christian of Denmark. In the play, the rules and conventions of society are broken by Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Motivated by greed and ambition, the previously ‘noble’ (1.2.70) and ‘valiant’ (1.2.24) soldier Macbeth, usurps the throne. The supernatural theme, introduced by the witches, plays a big part in influencing Macbeth to break the rules and conventions resulting in chaos, blood, violence, disrupted natural order and tragedy. Treason is a key theme; the original Thane of Cawdor is executed for treason resulting in the witches 1st prophecy coming true. By the end of the play, good is restored by Malcolm (son of Duncan) rightfully retaking the throne after Macbeth is killed by Macduff. To explore the rules and conventions, I will consider how they are broken and their consequences.

Firstly, the order is broken when a woman takes the lead. In society, women were expected to raise children, be dutiful and inferior to men, their husbands leading dominantly, both socially and domestically. However, Lady Macbeth breaks this convention as she aspires to be more masculine, calling on spirits to ‘unsex’ (1.5.40) her. She says ‘come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall’ (1.5.46) indicating that she wants to change her basic female nature to become capable of the cruelty needed to kill the king. This makes the audience wonder, whether there is a connection between the witches and Lady Macbeth as it’s as if at this level of evil, one abandons being either male or female and becomes ‘it’, no longer human.

When she urges Macbeth to ‘look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t’ (1.5.57) to deceive the king, this displays her as deceitful (against the convention of women) and alludes to the Bible with Eve’s betrayal by referring to the ‘serpent’ implying that women are not only socially inferior to men, but morally inferior too. In their relationship, she dominates, planning everything to the point that all Macbeth has to do, is stab Duncan (‘Leave the rest to me’ (1.5.65)) which shows she’s in control. After the murder, Macbeth panics, whereas Lady Macbeth is rational and tells him to ‘go get some water’ (2.2.46) and ‘smear the sleepy grooms with blood.’ (2.2.50) This shows her in control as she orders Macbeth like a child, to do things he doesn’t think of.

As a consequence of becoming more of a man than Macbeth, she’s consumed by guilt for her evil acts, eventually losing her mind as shown in the sleepwalking scene- act 5 scene 1. Earlier, she told Macbeth that ‘a little water’ (2.2.64) could wash off the blood but is now obsessively washing her hands ‘Out damned spot’ (5.1.39) realising that it will take more then water to wash her sin. Ironically, she repeats her earlier words of reassurance to Macbeth: but instead of ‘What’s done is done’ she now says sadly, ‘What’s done cannot be undone’ (5.1.75). This is significant because it shows her transformation from an unnaturally masculine figure into an enfeebled woman, suggesting that Shakespeare was trying to say that the convention of women not rising above men was put there for a reason – women aren’t strong enough to deal with the consequences of their actions. She later commits suicide to escape her unbearable burden of over-stretching her role, her error of becoming more of a man then Macbeth.

Secondly, the order is broken when a man is lead by a woman. Soldiers were expected to be loyal to the king, be brave, strong leaders. However, Macbeth broke this convention by accepting the role of the woman by letting Lady Macbeth control him. Furthermore, Lady Macbeth says that he’s ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’ (1.5.17) which implies he’s too much like a woman, lacking the qualities needed to kill. When Macbeth tries to retake control, telling Lady Macbeth ‘we will proceed no further in this business’ (1.7.35), she replies, ‘…and live a coward in thine own esteem?’ (1.7.43) This portrays her as more manipulative, questioning his manhood, belittling any honour he may have and so tricks him into committing the crime.

As a consequence of killing Duncan through Lady Macbeth’s manipulation, Macbeth becomes paranoid – ‘Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more Macbeth does murder sleep…’ (2.2.32) Sleep is meaningful to Macbeth but he will never be able to rest peacefully after Duncan’s death. The theme of hallucination shown here through the voice, recurs throughout the play symbolising a troubled conscience. By killing a king, he’s isolated from God as emphasised by him frequently repeating ‘amen’ during the scene.

Therefore, if Macbeth had not let Lady Macbeth lead him astray, he may have not killed Duncan and would have remained at peace with himself. Macbeth attempts to regain control of events, making his own decision to kill Banquo, however, this pushes him into paranoia. In the banquet scene, he addresses Banquo’s ghost, ‘thou cant not say I did it; never shake thy gory locks at me’. (3.3.53) Lady Macbeth still tries to control the situation by covering up for Macbeth but eventually has to send everyone away. Therefore, he has wrestled back the power, but pushed himself further down the road of destruction. Shakespeare was implying that if a man gets pushed around by a woman, it ends in tragedy which is why the convention was, men had power.

The order is broken when a man doesn’t accept his position and role in the order of society. Macbeth breaks the convention of men being loyal to the king, when he thinks about murdering Duncan – ‘My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes…’ (1.3.139-140) This quote shows Macbeth not accepting his place in society but wanting more. Surprisingly, he’s ‘shaken’ by his own thoughts implying that Macbeth knows the idea of murder is wrong. This is ironic as Duncan’s earlier comment on the impossibility of finding the ‘mind’s construction in the face’ (1.4.12) doesn’t prevent Duncan being fooled a second time by the scheming of Macbeth. Another example showing Macbeth’s ambition, is just after Malcolm has been made heir to the throne. Macbeth realises that he’ll have to get rid of him – ‘that is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap. For in my way it lies.’ (1.4.55) He’s prepared to put social order aside to get where he wants making the audience believe he has a naturally evil character.

As a consequence of Macbeth not respecting his role in society, he loses a stable place in the natural order and can no longer be trusted thus losing his way – ‘…I am in blood, stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ (3.4.135-137) This implies that he realises that it’s too late to go back; he might as well continue his evil deeds. He’s so blinded by ambition, that he no longer sees the immorality of his acts. Before killing Duncan, he sees a dagger pointing the way ‘is this a dagger I see before me?’ (2.1.33) The ‘dagger’ represents Macbeth transferring responsibility for his acts and implies that it’s almost fate, leading him to murder. Shakespeare conveys that overreaching ones position in society is dangerous and one should be happy with one’s lot.

The order is broken when a man doesn’t respect his fellow man. For example, Macbeth breaks the order by hiring murderers to kill Banquo, worrying that Banquo’s ‘children shall be kings’ (1.3.86) due to the witches prophecies. He also hires murderers to ensure that Macduff’s wife and children are ‘savagely slaughtered’ (4.3.205) because the witches apparition warns him to ‘beware Macduff.’ (4.1.71) These cruel and unnecessary murders show how evil and driven he has become by his desire for power, and his need to destroy any threat to the extent of even killing women, children and his own friend, breaking the convention of friendship.

As a result of Macbeth not respecting his fellow man, he ends up deserted and alone – ‘…and that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troop of friends, I must not look to have.’ (5.3.24-26) Shakespeare implies that Macbeths actions come back onto him like karma, demonstrated by Macbeth’s wife dying after Macduff’s wife is murdered which is ironic as Macbeth said earlier – ‘blood will have blood.’ (3.4.121)

Through Macbeths disrespect of the divine right of kings, Scotland was plunged into darkness, expressed by Ross who describes his country as ‘almost too afraid to know itself’ (4.3.165) and a ‘grave’, not a ‘mother’. (4.3.166) This shows the audience how unhappy Scotland was, describing it as a place of death as a result of the ‘tyrant’ (4.3.178) Macbeth. Furthermore, disaster of Macbeth’s reign is reflected in supernatural events as after Duncan’s murder, the ‘mousing owl, kills the falcon’ (2.4.11-13) representing the natural order of the animal kingdom turned upside down as mousing owls aren’t meant to kill falcons like Macbeth isn’t meant to kill Duncan.

The clothing imagery describing Macbeth’s title as hanging ‘loose about him, like a giant’s robe, upon a dwarfish thief’ (5.2.21) implies that his role is too big for him as he can’t fill the responsibilities of a king. To regain order, the English join forces with the Scots to stop Macbeth. This leads on to the ending, where Macbeth refuses to fight when he learns that Macduff was ‘untimely ripped from his mother’s womb’ (5.8.15) and so goes from being a brave soldier to a coward, discovering that his kingdom was built on prophecies with no foundation, he didn’t have ‘charmed life’ (5.8.14) and was tricked by the witches. Macduff kills Macbeth as revenge for his family and his love of Scotland, order restored! This shows that Shakespeare was trying to convey that one shouldn’t be tempted by evil or acquire a thrown falsely, as it’s an act against God and the king.

In conclusion, we can clearly see that rules and conventions are hugely important to the harmony and stability in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ as when these conventions were broken, it resulted in blood, violence, a corrupt kingdom, madness and hallucinations. By displaying this in the play, maybe Shakespeare was trying to show us that conventions were put in society for a reason and so if one gets too greedy or ambitious, this is what could happen to them.

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