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The Significance of Power in Macbeth

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Hypothesis: Dramatic relationships are often the site of power games between characters.

Discuss the significance of power, and the resistance to power, in Macbeth.

The significance of power in the play Macbeth is portrayed as a tangible force that can change people in an incomprehensible way. The play begins with Macbeth and Banquo receiving the witches’ predictions, but both react differently to the question of power. The resistance to power is a temptation that is incredibly difficult to resist. Macbeth initially tries to resist attaining the most powerful position in his reach- that of a king, but eventually succumbs to the taunts and leadings of his wife, Lady Macbeth. Power games occur between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth most vividly throughout the play. Lady Macbeth’s motives and purpose are both complex and mysterious, but she plays a vital role in persuading her husband to murder Duncan and gain power.

These games also take place between other characters, initially being between Banquo and Macbeth. Malcolm, Duncan’s heir and son, displays his shrewdness and cunning when he tests Macduff’s loyalty before they attempt to regain his father’s lost power. Here Shakespeare makes comment on the often unattractive qualities required to stay in power, and the different ways one will try to remain in power. Power and ambition plays a central role and is a major theme in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. In Macbeth, trying to resist power is futile. His unbridled passion to become the most powerful develops slowly but surely in the play and is urged on by Lady Macbeth. This dangerous desire changed and transformed Macbeth into a heartless killer. After studying the dramatic relationships and the power games that occur, it is evident that power has a very significant role in the play Macbeth.

Shakespeare portrays power as a natural desire that pervades the mind and heart in many different forms, and gradually has a tighter grip on someone’s life if it is allowed to grow, unchecked. It also has the ability to change a person completely. This happens to Macbeth throughout the play, and his transformation from his start in the film to his end displays that. Resisting power is also something that all major characters fail to do, as they strive to become more powerful than each other. This enforces the greatness of the temptation of in power. Shakespeare also suggests that there is a line that can be crossed in the pursuit of becoming powerful and when that line is crossed, there is no turning back, and this play can be considered as a warning to be wary of crossing it.

From the beginning of the play, both Macbeth and Banquo are shown to be ambitious, but the way they react to the witches prophecies are very different. After the prophecy that he will become the Thane of Cawdor comes true, Macbeth says to Banquo, ‘Do you not hope your children will be kings, When those that gave me the Thane of Cawdor gave no less to them?’ Macbeth starts to believe the witches prophecies and begins to wonder how he might become king. Banquo replies, ‘That, trusted home, Might yet enkindle you unto the crown.’, which means to say that it might help Macbeth become king. The image here is of fire, and the message Banquo is trying to send is the idea that Macbeth’s vaulting ambition to become king might be set alight. Banquo’s response displays the intimate understanding he has of Macbeth, and he fears what Macbeth will do now that his desire to become king has indeed been set alight.

Although Banquo’s personal life and words are not written extensively in the play, his response to the witches show he does not believe them. Banquo tells Macbeth in Act I Scene III, ‘And often times, to win us our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths; Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.’ This is a warning from Banquo, what he means to say is that evil (the witches), will offer people small, surprising truths in order to catch them in a fatal trap. This trap is the lust for power, and by allowing himself to obsess over the statements the witches made, the force of evil encompasses his mind and is constantly there. This is reflected in his speech, which eventually translates into action. It is interesting to try and comprehend what would happen if Banquo received the prophecy that he would be king instead of Macbeth, and Macbeth receives Banquo’s. I believe that Banquo would not be motivated to try and make himself king.

This is because of his value in loyalty and justice. If the tables were turn, and Macbeth still sent a letter to Lady Macbeth, it would be likely that she would respond by saying the only way to ensure that their children become king is by him becoming king first, and thus preventing Banquo’s prediction from becoming true. Three forms of power and ambition are present here- thoughts, speech and action. Macbeth tries to resist his thoughts, and sends a letter to Lady Macbeth hoping for advice. Lady Macbeth’s emotional and passionate reaction brings the both of them closer to the line and to fall deeper into the trap.

Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s letter is the beginning of the power games between them. She knows that Macbeth has a humane side and declares of her husband in Act I Scene V, ‘Yet I do fear thy nature: It is too full of the human-kindness to catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it.’ When Lady Macbeth says she fears Macbeth’s nature, she is essentially saying she knows her husband’s ambition, but is fearful that his conscience might interfere with him pursuing. From examination of the text, is appears that Lady Macbeth shares this ambition with her husband. She also craves the power and wishes to be queen. She is ambitious for herself and for her husband. As a result, she decides to ‘sacrifice her own humanity’ in order to the both of them get the crowns.

She does this by literally calling on evil spirits and unsex her. The word represents removing her womanhood. She wants to rid of any kindness and tenderness that is generally related to womanhood. In a startling, graphic verse that continues for seventeen lines, this bold act certainly seems to have taken away her womanhood. She declares in the final lines of the Act I Scene V to, ‘Leave the rest to me.’, indicating that she will murder Duncan. She says this after reading Macbeth’s face of fear and realising that she has convinced him to murder Duncan. It is ironic that although Lady Macbeth considers herself to be strong and Macbeth to be weak, it differs to the true state of affairs. Lady Macbeth ultimately collapses and dies in a mysterious way because of the stress of her evil deeds, while Macbeth has been hardened by the things he has done and possesses the strength to carry on.

When Macbeth slays Duncan and Lady Macbeth kills the two servants and frames them, it is a terrible act that signifies the point of no return. The natural order seems to be overturned, as darkness covers the land after the act. It is interesting that Macbeth does try to resist his desire to become powerful through such despicable means, and experiences several bouts of a guilty conscience, especially during the dinner where Banquo’s ghost appears. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as more evil initially as she immediately plans on killing Duncan, but also suffers in the later events of the play. It is once again tragically ironic that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth believed that gaining power would make them become happy and satisfied, where in actual fact it made them miserable and isolated. From here the desire to remain in power gains a gradually tighter grip in Macbeth’s life.

Macbeth’s actions become rash after this. The transformation that power has on his life begins to take full flight. He also begins to rely more on his own self than listening and discussing with his wife, Lady Macbeth. This is partly because of Lady Macbeth’s increasing guilt and Macbeth’s desire to maintain his throne at all costs. The first act he does is to instruct servants to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance, while they are out riding. Macbeth’s desire to keep power makes him become manipulative and deceitful. He lies to the servants by saying that Banquo is responsible for their pain. Here power manifests itself and one of the evil fruits of power is the ability to lie and deceive people. It combines the elements of the three forms aforementioned- thoughts, speech and action, to become a being that is extremely deceitful.

He does this because he is spurred by Banquo’s suspicion that he murdered the former King Duncan and that he reminded him that the witches also prophesied that his sons would gain the throne after Macbeth. The image of power reminded me of the ring in the very successful film trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The ring is a symbol of power, and in the movies we watch as characters struggle with the temptation of the ring and how it can transform people. A stunning depiction of the radical makeover that power can do to you is the character of Gollum. Macbeth also is a totally different person from the start to the beginning of the play.

Juxtaposed onto each other, Macbeth, a gallant war hero who has just returned from another victorious battle and promoted to a high position is contrasted with an abhorred tyrant who gets killed by Macduff in a scrappy battle. Macbeth’s reaction to his wife’s death is written in Act V Scene V as, ‘She should have died hereafter, There would have been time for such a word-‘. Macbeth is stoic and almost emotionless, as he has already seen so much death. A crucial point in the play was when Macbeth decides that in the future he will act immediately upon his feelings and impulsion. This leads to him ordering the murder of Macduff’s entire family, leaving more blood on his hands.

There is also a power game going on between Macbeth and the witches. He does not trust them, but believes in their power to foresee the future. The trap that Macbeth falls into becomes more recognizable when the witches speak in ways that hide reality: Birnam Wood marching were actually soldiers in disguise and no man of woman born was a play on words. These words make Macbeth proud before he is aware of the truth, as though the witches had transferred part of their power in the form of knowledge to him. However, Banquo’s early warnings of their words come to fruition in a terrible way for Macbeth. Macbeth made crucial mistakes in his life, he allowed his ambition to go unchecked, resulting in his failure to resist the temptation of power, and finally, crossed a line where he could not go back and change what he did even if he wanted to.

Malcolm, Duncan’s eldest son and heir, proves himself to have the capability to become a much wiser leader. He tests and makes a valuable ally in that of Macduff, and values loyalty and honour highly. Their campaign signifies the restoration of the natural order in terms of who has power. Malcolm’s shrewdness enforces the comment that to remain in power, one has to be clever in what one does, but also maintain justice and be honest. If the latter two qualities are missing, one becomes isolated and obsessive as Macbeth became. Malcolm and Macduff are also different people when they return to take back the throne. Malcolm is displayed as having a valid reason to gain power as it is rightfully his and Macduff wants to serve the true heir to the throne.

Macduff, however, has also been shaped by the anger and remorse of the death of his family by the hands of Macbeth. It seems that for Macduff, the only way to satisfy himself is to regain power and avenge the death of his family by killing Macbeth personally. This shows snippets of the way power shaped the way Macbeth behaved and Macduff’s resistance to power and his self-control can be questioned. It is interesting to note that Malcolm and Macduff do not resist regaining power as it is rightfully Malcolm’s. In some ways then, their purpose of attaining power is justified. It remains to be seen, however, the type of king Malcolm will eventually become, and the type of subject Macduff will be to Malcolm, considering the prediction of Banquo’s children becoming kings.

In conclusion, it is apparent that dramatic relationships are the sight of many power games, and the significance of power and the resistance to power can be studied by investigating the relationships between the several complex characters in the play, Macbeth. Power is a natural desire, everyone wants to become more powerful or more relevant in today’s context get a higher position because of the influence and benefits that are available. It is important also though, to heed the warning that Shakespeare conveys through Macbeth. Unbridled power has devastating transformational power that becomes harder to resist the deeper you find yourself affected by it. It is vital to be attentive to the line that determines a perplexing reality: once you cross it, there is no turning back.


http://flighty02.hubpages.com/hub/macbeth-themes-ambition, 16th July 2012

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banquo, Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopaedia, 20th July 2012

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/353785/Macbeth, Britannica Encyclopaedia, 22th July 2012

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