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MacBeth’s Loss of Innoncence

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“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” (Act I, Scene I, line 10) With this opening paradoxical quote, Shakespeare opens the tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth is the tragic hero of this tragedy, as his ambitious actions place him in a downwards spiral until he loses everything that was once precious to him. He sacrifices his innocence, his conscience, and his peace of mind for the endless power and control he pursues. The introduction of the play begins with the description of a king under the pressures of war. Duncan, the king of Scotland, hears of Macbeth’s bravery in battle against a Scot who took sides with the enemy.

Scotland is currently at war with the King of Norway, and the country is rather divided, as traitors begin to surface. One such traitor, the Thane of Cawdor, was promptly arrested (and later hanged). As a reimbursement for his courageous demeanor, Duncan gives the title to an unknowing Macbeth. Meanwhile, Macbeth and Banquo are on their journey to the castle and find themselves with three witches, who greet Macbeth as the “Thane of Cawdor.” Immediately interested by this prophecy, Macbeth urges them to speak more…and his suppressed dreams of power begin to arise. It is this, Macbeth’s aspirations of greatness that thrust him into power and his eventual death.

Macbeth’s psychological position changes throughout this play. His psychological transition from innocent and loyal soldier towards a cruel and evil tyrant takes place in several stages. In Act I, we are shown a rather moral and ethical man, as Macbeth struggles with his conscience. The weird sisters’ prophesy of his ascent to the throne truly troubles him, not only because his aspirations lead him there, but also because his mind cannot dare imagine the “horrible imaginings” (Act I, Scene III, line 138). The audience presumes his conscience is actively battling his ambition, and at this point is triumphant in derailing it. In the palace however, we see Macbeth become more determined as he is angered at the rise of Malcolm, who is named heir to Duncan.

“…Stars hide your fires;

Let not light see my black and deep desires:

The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be

Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” (Act I, Scene IV, lines 50-53)

This is a direct allusion to the future action that Macbeth will take. It is then when the reader can assume that his ambition is now overpowering his conscience and his morals. However, another change is made, as his conscience struggles to arise. We see Macbeth begin to clearly debate whether the murder of Duncan would be worth the consequences. He praises Duncan for his virtues, and finally sees his own tragic flaw, ambition.

“…I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on th’ other-” (Act I, Scene VII, lines 25-28)

He tells Lady Macbeth that they will proceed no further; he will not murder his king, his kinsman, his guest. She then poses a threat to his masculinity, but most importantly brings up whether he wants the throne or not…Macbeth’s inner conflict ends then momentarily, and he finally decides that he will murder Duncan. In Act II, the audience witnesses the bloody murder of the king, and it is truly then when Macbeth’s conscience is no more and he is now completely submitted to the wickedness that will eventually bring his death. There is a direct metaphor to this loss of conscience and innocence after the murder, as Macbeth believes he heard voices.

“Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep’- the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast-” (Act II, Scene II, lines 34-39)

Macbeth recognizes the action he just committed is wrong, and yet he fails to foresee the problems that arise out of it. In this point, Macbeth’s conscience has just lost the battle with ambition, and alongside it, he has also lost his innocence and peace of mind (as is seen later). In the chaos that follows, Malcolm and Donalbain rush to leave Scotland, fearing a price on their lives. This casts suspicion upon the two heirs, and Macbeth is quickly crowned king at Scone. The nobles sense no suspicion in Macbeth and follow him as king. However, Macduff is not fooled and flees for England. Act III brings some suspicion, as Banquo has knowledge of the weird sisters’ prophecies.

“Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,

As the weird women promised, and I fear

Thou play’dst most foully for’t.” (Act III, Scene I, lines 1-3)

It is the knowledge that Banquo has that causes Macbeth to turn his hands red with blood again. The king is suspicious, if not afraid, of Banquo and decides the only way he will be free of his worries would be to kill him. Macbeth also shows jealousy of Banquo, as he wonders why he will not lead a line of kings, rather than Banquo. Macbeth also begins to feel anger towards the weird sisters, as he begins to believe that he has been chosen to do the dirty work, while it is Banquo’s descendants that will reap the benefits. It is the sum of these two matters- Banquo’s loyalties and Macbeth’s line of heirs- that he chooses to kill once more. Furthermore, his decision to hire the murderers and exactly how he gets them to turn against Banquo is another step towards the darkening of his soul. He uses the technique that Lady Macbeth used on him to murder Duncan; Macbeth told the murderers of Banquo’s “wrongs” towards them and the reasons why he would kill Banquo himself, but his subjects wouldn’t be very pleased.

These steps show further deterioration of his ethics, as he tries to reason guilt off of him by hiring these murderers. Macbeth also hides his true feelings as he speaks in deep euphemisms, he doesn’t directly order the murder of Fleance, but he does encourage it using subtlety. However, his deep obsession with securing a “safe” throne leads him into only deeper trouble. He finally decides on visiting the weird sisters’ in order to know more of what the future brings. He now believes that if he must kill again, he will, and believes it easier to continue the flow of blood rather than to stop and face his guilt. The weird sisters’, however, are contemplating why exactly they helped him anyway. Hecate decides to ruin Macbeth, and foreshadows the fall of him- due to his greed, ambition, and overconfidence.

“He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear

His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace, and fear:

And you all know security

Is mortal’s chiefest enemy.” (Act III, Scene V, lines 30-34)

Macbeth’s visit to them further proves his obsession to control and have power over all, as he begs them to tell him of the future. His demands give him three prophecies: to beware of Macduff, that no man of woman born will harm him, and that he will only be vanquished when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. The two latter further cement his belief in his infallibility, while a procession of eight kings in the appearance of Banquo creates a sense of panic. The combination of these two emotions creates a tyrant of the nervous king as he continues in his psychological downwards spiral by purging his kingdom of believed traitors. He easily sends out orders for the slaying of Macduff’s family, including his wife and young child. In the past, he was hesitant to order the murder of children (euphemisms for young Fleance), but by now he is quick to act and deliberates later, if at all. The murder of Lady Macduff and her son further shows the complete ethical corrosion on behalf of Macbeth, as he tries to create a stable reign for himself, along with heirs.

It is that deep obsession for a stable throne, coupled with his greed, ambition, and over-confidence that encouraged his subjects to oppose him. His tragic flaw of ambition created the turn of events that would cause his downfall. It is also this drive for power that causes him to reach the bottom of the wheel of fortune. His desires drove him to isolate himself, giving the reader the image of a king without a kingdom. He only felt truly secure when surrounded by people he was certain supported him (Lady Macbeth), and if he felt doubtful (Macduff), he would order their murders. These murders caused the rise of an army against him…and his death.

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