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Trace the degeneration of Macbeth by close analysis of his soliloquies

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Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. It revolves around the main character Macbeth who is a tragic hero. A tragic hero is a person who begins being praised for their brave and heroic actions, but then by an error of judgement or a flaw they bring about their own destruction or degeneration. In the play this is exactly what happens to Macbeth. One of the reasons the play ends in tragedy for him is he becomes too dependent on the witches predictions. The witches tell Macbeth he will be king. However, they do not tell him to murder the king to get there. Macbeth eventually becomes desperate to know more and more predictions. On the other hand, he does have the potential to be great, and starts of as being great, but he has one flaw: ambition. Because of this flaw, Macbeth degenerates from being a noble soldier to eventually being a murdering tyrant.

Soliloquies are dramatic speeches which are spoken aloud by one character while they are alone (or while under the impression of being alone) on stage. Macbeth uses soliloquies in most of the important parts of the play. Soliloquies are very important in the play, because before Macbeth’s first murder he says

False face must hide what the false heart doth know

Act 1 Scene 7.

This means he is putting on a mask; not showing his true feelings to anyone. Therefore, we do not know when or if he is telling the truth. Consequently, his soliloquies are very important points in the play where we can see what his true motives and thoughts are.

Macbeth’s soliloquies enable us to plot his degeneration systematically. We can see how far he has fallen from one soliloquy to the next. Near the start of the play, Macbeth considers reasons whether or not to kill the king, and decides not to. In the next soliloquy, he has changed and is ready to kill Duncan. Therefore, we can see that in the gap between these two early soliloquies Macbeth has already declined distinctly. Macbeth’s soliloquies get shorter and shorter throughout the play (eventually being called asides), because he is no longer seeking reasons not to kill the person, but why he should kill later on in the play. He says

“The very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand”

Act 4 Scene 1.

This means whatever his first thought is he will do it. This shows we can trace his downfall by analysing his soliloquies. This quote is parallel syntax, because the grammatical structure “The firstlings of my…” is repeated.

At the start of the play we hear about Macbeth long before we see him. Throughout the first two scenes Shakespeare positively modifies the word ‘Macbeth’. Consequently we immediately think of Macbeth as a hero, and a good soldier. The play opens with the three witches planning to meet Macbeth. In scene 2 a wounded captain tells the king Duncan how Macbeth and Banquo valiantly fought Macdonald, and how Macbeth cut the enemy Macdonald’s head off.

“Like Valour’s minion carved out his passage

Till he faced the slave,”

Act 1 Scene 2

This simile is saying Macbeth carved his way to the enemy. The captain says Macbeth is like bravery’s favourite.

Also the captain praises Macbeth saying:

“For brave Macbeth –well he deserves that name-“Act 1 Scene 2

Next Duncan finds out the Thane of Cawdor is a traitor, and sentences him to death. He decides that he will give the title of Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth In the next scene (scene 3). This means that we the audience , know that Macbeth is going to be given the title of Thane of Cawdor before the witches make their prophecy , or before Ross and Angus tell Macbeth the news. This is dramatic irony, as the audience know what is going to happen before the characters do. The witches await Macbeth and chant a spell to prepare for him coming. When Macbeth and Banquo arrive, the witches greet him by saying:

All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.”

Act 1 Scene 3

This is an escalating triplet, because it starts with Glamis, then Cawdor then finally ascends to king. This quote also is an example of parallel syntax, because the grammatical structure is repeated in all three lines. The witches therefore predict, Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor, and be king in the future. This is an example of foreshadowing; Shakespeare gives the audience clues of things that will happen later on in the story.

Banquo asks to know his future and the witches tell him that although he won’t become king his descendants will. The witches disappear and then Ross and Angus tell Macbeth that he is now to become Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth reveals some of his thoughts in an aside. He weighs up the implications of the witches predictions, and is horrified at the thought of killing the king. In the end he decides to accept whatever happens. He says that:

If good why do I yield to that suggestion, Whose murder yet is but fantastical

Act 1 Scene 3

Macbeth is already thinking about killing the king; and he is disgusted about his thoughts. He lies to Banquo when he says:

My dull brain was wrought with things forgotten

Act 1 scene 3

We can see that Macbeth has declined already, as it is not heroic to lie to your kinsmen, or to have thoughts of murder.

In the next scene Duncan and his attendants are speaking. Malcolm -Duncan’s son- tells the king that before the old Thane of Cawdor was executed the thane repented for his sins, and asked for forgiveness Duncan says:

There’s no art

To find the mind’s construction in the face:

Act 1 Scene 4

This means that you can never tell what someone is thinking by just looking at the face. Appearance and reality is a central theme of the play. Duncan foolishly trusted the former thane of Cawdor who was traitor, and then he goes on trust the new thane of Cawdor: Macbeth. Duncan therefore didn’t learn from his mistakes, and it is Macbeth later on in the play that kills him. Then Macbeth, Banquo, Ross and Angus enter. At this moment in the play Shakespeare creates dramatic irony, because Macbeth newly Thane of Cawdor has been thinking about murdering Duncan, just after the king has said that you can’t see what someone is thinking, and Duncan doesn’t see Macbeth’s thoughts either. However the audience watching the play know Macbeth’s thoughts. Macbeth soon finds out that Duncan is planning to make his eldest son a prince. He is unhappy when he hears this, and thinks of Malcolm as a hurdle he needs to leap over. When he speaks aside he is opposite of what he speaking to the king. He says:

For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;

Let not light see my black and deep desires

Act 1 Scene 4

By personifying stars, he is saying that let no one see what I really want. This aside helps us to plot his degeneration. We can see he has fallen from the last aside (Scene 3), because in Scene 3 the thought of him even thinking about the king horrified him, but now he is hiding his feeling from everyone, and although he knows its wrong he wants to be king. Again hiding his dark thoughts is not a valiant thing to do.

Duncan also tells Macbeth that he will be staying at Macbeth’s house that night. Macbeth writes a letter to Lady Macbeth telling her about the events about the witches that have occurred. Lady Macbeth analyses Macbeth’s nature, and fears he is too decent to murder Duncan. She then invites evil spirits to come inside her to assist her in her murderous plans.

She says:

..fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,

Act 1 Scene 5

Lady Macbeth is saying to the spirits to make all of her cruel, and by saying “make thick my blood” she means stop any pity reaching my heart.

Next Macbeth arrives at the castle. When Lady Macbeth speaks to Macbeth (lines 58-69)

She uses equivocations or connotations that could indicate murder. I think she chooses to do this, because she testing Macbeth seeing to how he will react to the idea of murder.

She also tells him to make sure he looks innocent but acts treacherous underneath. For example, the simile:

…..look like th’innocent flower,

But be the serpent under’t. He that’s coming

Must be provided for,

Act 1 scene 5

Again this quote refers to the central theme of the play: appearance and reality. Therefore the fact that looks can be deceiving. Another example is when she says “Must be provided for,” she could mine either fed or killed. In addition Lady Macbeth says just before the scene ends that fear results in a guilty face, so Macbeth should leave everything to her.

In scene 6 Duncan comments on how pleasant Macbeth’s castle appears. This again is dramatic irony, because the audience knows that the Macbeths are thinking of murdering him, but Duncan doesn’t suspect anything. There is more dramatic irony as Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan with elaborate courtesy.

Next, there is Macbeth’s first major soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7. In this soliloquy we can see that Macbeth still has a conscience, but is struggling with it. First he says that if there were no consequences resulting in this regicide then I would risk it not worrying about the future. He then debates reasons why not to kill the king. The first of these is

This even-handed justice

Commends th`ingredience of our poisoned chalice

To our own lips.

Act 1 Scene 7

This is vengeance- that the person who kills will be killed.

The next reasons Macbeth gives are about kinship, and loyalty. Macbeth is related to Duncan, and you shouldn’t kill your relatives. When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth it was believed to be the worst crime anyone could commit was regicide, because the king was God’s representative on earth, kings have divine right. Therefore killing the king was the closest you could get to killing God. Macbeth says:

First I am his kinsman and his subject,

Strong both against the deed;

Act 1 Scene 7

Macbeth’s next reason is that he is Duncan’s host; consequently he should protect his guests not kill them.

as his host,

Who should against his murderer shut the door

Act 1 Scene 7

Another reason Macbeth speaks of is of his king’s good qualities. Duncan is a good virtuous king, therefore why kill him?

that his virtues

Will plead like angels

Act 1 Scene 7

Here Macbeth is using a simile. He says that the honourable things that Duncan has done will plead against the murder like angels- that Duncan doesn’t deserve to be killed.

Macbeth’s last two reasons are religion and horror. A killer is damned to eternity, and killing is unnatural, not humane. Macbeth says:

The deep damnation

Act 1 Scene 7

and Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye

Act 1 Scene 7

However Macbeth says his only reason to kill the king which he personifies: is his ambition

Vaulting ambition which o`erleaps itself

Act 1 Scene 7

Macbeth has not degenerated much since his last aside; he can still regain his former position, because he knows so many reasons why he shouldn’t murder Duncan. In the soliloquy, Macbeth uses euphemisms; he rarely speaks of the actual murder. I think he does this, because he thinks the deed is too horrible to even name. This shows at this stage he still has a conscience.

Next Lady Macbeth enters. Macbeth tells her in a firm declarative:

We will proceed no further in this business.

Act 1 Scene 7

The quote shows that he won’t murder someone just for his wife. This stage in the play is Macbeth’s last chance to regain his previous position. However the only reason he gives to Lady Macbeth for not killing Duncan is the reason “what will people think”. Therefore Macbeth doesn’t tell his wife all the reasons that he has been conscience stricken about in the first soliloquy. I think Macbeth does this, because he doesn’t want Lady Macbeth to find out how scared he is about the murder, and he doesn’t want Lady Macbeth to call him a coward. Macbeth already feels a bit of a coward for not wanting to take this opportunity no matter how wrong it is. Also he may feel that deep inside he wants to murder Duncan, and that he should murder Duncan. Consequently when Lady Macbeth tells him to kill Duncan he fells that Lady Macbeth is right and therefore doesn’t protest. Lady Macbeth subsequently ridicules Macbeth. She calls him a coward, and says he is not fit to be a man. One thing she says is:

Like the poor cat i’th’adage?

Act 1 Scene 7

This proverb refers to a cat that wants a fish but is frightened of water. Therefore Lady Macbeth is saying Macbeth wants the crown but is too much of a coward to get it. Lady Macbeth regards the position of king the most important achievement in life. She thinks it’s vital that they commit the murder.

Macbeth replies:

Prithee, peace.

I dare do all that may become a man;

Act 1 Scene 7

He doesn’t argue back at all he just says I will do everything a man will do. It seems that he is defeated already. Nevertheless Lady Macbeth carries on:

She says to Macbeth that if you were a man you would kill Duncan. Next she says:

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,

Act 1 Scene 7

Here Lady Macbeth is saying I would have killed my baby if I had promised what you (Macbeth) have.

This is a horrible thing to say, because we know that Macbeth has no children, but they did have a child that died. So Lady Macbeth would have killed her child if she had promised to kill the king. The audience know however that on stage Macbeth didn’t promise to kill the king at all. Lady Macbeth knows Macbeth well and consequently knows his weak points. Therefore this issue of children must be important to Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth has now mostly persuaded him.

The next line Macbeth says is:

If we should fail?

Act 1 Scene 7

In this interrogative Macbeth includes Lady Macbeth by using the plural pronoun “we”. Macbeth is now almost agreeing to the thought of killing the king. He is directing his worries at the problem that they might fail. He no longer is questioning how wrong the murder is. Therefore Lady Macbeth has successfully persuaded him. Consequently after Lady Macbeth vocalized her arguments, in a short space of time, Macbeth has degenerated significantly. Now there is no way Macbeth can regain his past honourable role.

After this Lady Macbeth explains that she will make the guards drunk, and as a result the guards will easily be culpable for the deed. Macbeth applauds Lady Macbeth on her cunningness. He scarily seems excited about the murder. He says:

I am settled and bend up

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat

Act 1 Scene 7

This means Macbeth is saying each and every part of him is ready and fit for this feat. Macbeth is not worrying at all. He’s ready and waiting to commit the murder. Nevertheless, Macbeth still wants to be careful that they are not caught, or that no one suspects them. The next two lines he says are famous and reflect one of the biggest and most important themes in the whole play:

Away, and mock the time with fairest show

False face must hide what the false heart doth know

Act 1 Scene 7.

This means that Macbeth is going to deceive the world by hiding what he really feels, and putting on a mask from this moment onwards. Consequently, from this scene onwards we will not know his true feelings – except in his soliloquies-. This is why Macbeth’s soliloquies are so important; this is the only evidence that we have of how he degenerates. This is the only way we can trace his degeneration. In Macbeth there are several phrases that relate to not trusting appearances, and Duncan foolishly trusting Macbeth, and also trusting the previous Thane of Cawdor result in his downfall.

Next in the play, we see Macbeth and Banquo talking. By hearing their conversation we can see to what extent, Macbeth has fallen already. Banquo is honest and open to Macbeth. For example, Banquo tells Macbeth he has dreamed of the weÑrd sisters, but truthfully wants to remain loyal and free of guilt. On the other hand; Macbeth lies to his friend saying:

I think not of them;

Act 2 Scene 1

This is a lie, as Macbeth obviously has thought a lot about the weÑrd sisters, and what they said. The audience know this, but of course Banquo doesn’t. Macbeth also tries to tempt Banquo into killing Duncan indirectly. However it is clear Banquo won’t be persuaded into killing the king. The contrast between Banquo and Macbeth is vast. An act ago (Act 1) Banquo and Macbeth were just as loyal and honourable as each other. Now Macbeth has sharply degenerated.

Macbeth refers to the witches as “them”. It seems that he doesn’t want to think about the witches. He is lying to himself, and to Banquo. Macbeth is trying to convince himself that he isn’t thinking about the witches, the predictions, and killing the king. This shows therefore although Macbeth is degenerating, he knows what he is doing is wrong, and at this stage he could regain his former position.

Next Banquo and Fleance (Banquo’s son) exit. Therefore, Macbeth is left alone and begins his second soliloquy.

Macbeth starts to hallucinates thinking he sees a dagger. The dagger is ambiguous, so it can be interpreted in at least two different ways. Macbeth could interpret it as a warning or an invitation. The dagger could also by a symbol of how desperate Macbeth is to be king. Therefore, the dagger could represent what extent Macbeth will go to kill Duncan:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

Act 2 Scene 1

Macbeth thinks the dagger is an invitation. He says:

And such an instrument I was to use

Act 2 Scene 1

As he moves towards the dagger he thinks large drops of blood appear on it that were not there before. Macbeth starts to personify death. I think he does this as it makes him feel that Duncan dying is not his fault, that it was death and the dagger that murdered Duncan. Consequently Macbeth is trying to scapegoat the blame onto someone else. He also thinks that saying to himself he didn’t kill Duncan many times will make himself innocent. Macbeth doesn’t want to face the consequences of killing. He only wants the reward of killing the king.

Next Macbeth’s imagination starts to conjure up evil images that he relates to murder.

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtained sleep

Act 2 Scene 1

This quote is saying that Macbeth is turning evil. Macbeth cannot imagine everything natural and untouched, and is having wicked dreams.

Next Macbeth imagines more evil images of witchcraft, Tarquin and wolves. For example

Witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings Act 2 Scene 1

In this quote, Macbeth describes how witches are offering sacrifices to their goddess Hecate. He is thinking about the wicked things going around him, and comparing them to the murder he is about to commit.

However Macbeth doesn’t actually mention the word murder throughout the soliloquy. He personifies the dagger he is imagining. Macbeth uses the dagger to distance himself from the murder. He tries to convince himself that the dagger is committing the deed not himself. Consequently, Macbeth doesn’t feel as guilty, because he is trying to think the dagger is to blame.

Next Macbeth hears the sound of a bell interrupting his soliloquy. Now Macbeth has morally declined to such an extent he believes the bell is inviting him to do the killing. He says:

The bell invites me.

Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Act 2 Scene 1

Macbeth also thinks the bell is Duncan’s funeral bell, and is wondering if Duncan will be summoned to heaven or hell. It is horrific how Macbeth can associate the bell ringing to a murdering invitation or to a funeral bell. This shows how malevolent Macbeth is becoming, and that he knows exactly what he is doing, and exactly how wrong it is. This nevertheless does not stop him. Macbeth doesn’t seem to know the great degree of consequences that follow the murder. He doesn’t believe this murder will result in any more for example.

When Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the king was very significant to the country. Kings were believed to have divine rights. This meant that kings were chosen by God, or Kings were Gods representative on earth. Consequently kings were considered to be very important, and therefore the biggest sin anyone could commit was to harm or kill the king. Killing the king was regarded as killing God, therefore committing this sin automatically resulted in immediate death, and going to hell. In Shakespearean times it was a massive event if the king was killed. Macbeth knows this and still goes to kill Duncan. This again shows how Macbeth deterioration is quickening.

After Macbeth kills the king he thinks he has committed the worst crime that is possible; and is therefore eternally condemned to hell. As a result of this he believes that his soul cannot be recovered no matter what he does from this point onwards in the play. Additionally, as Macbeth thinks he condemned to hell, he believes now it does not matter what sin he commits. This belief leads Macbeth to his downfall in the rest of the play.

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