Violence, blood and death. The quintessential characteristics of war. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is based on a war, but not your typical one. The real war in the play and the underlining factor leading to Macbeth’s death, is not fought on a battlefield, there are no swords, and no soldiers to swing them. The real war is fought in Macbeth’s mind. Macbeth’s conscience and vaulting ambition alternate in controlling his actions throughout the play.
Many critics of the play believe that from the first scene to the last, Macbeth’s character is unchanging, and that he is always governed by his greed, selfishness and evil. This is not so. Right from the outset of the story, Macbeth’s indecisiveness is evident. In act I, Macbeth struggles a great deal in deciding whether or not to murder the king and take his throne. When Macbeth is first given the prophecy that he will be king, he dreads the thought of killing a man that has been like a father to him. This shows that Macbeth has a conscience, and that deep down inside, he is a good person. When he arrives home to his kingdom though, he is greeted by Lady Macbeth who reveals her plan to make her husband King when she says:
“I will pour my spirits into thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round.”
(Iv, 24 – 26)
Macbeth’s conscience tries to fight the constant attacks by his wife who insists that he should kill the king. Finally, Macbeth decides his fate, listens to the poisoned words of his wife and kills Duncan.
Immediately after the death of Duncan, Macbeth is completely overcome by guilt. For the moment, he forgets about the now empty throne, and can’t comprehend what or why he has done what he has done. When Lady Macbeth realizes that in a state of confusion he has forgotten to remove the daggers from the King’s room, she tells him to go back and get them. He replies by saying “I’ll go no more./ I am afraid to think what I have done. / Look on’t again, I dare not” (II ii, 50 – 52). This passage outlines the fact that once again, his conscience has taken over control of his mind. Macbeth feels horribly about what he has done to his King. When Macbeth tries to wash the blood from his hands he remarks:
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incardine,
Making the green one red”
(II ii, 60 – 63)
Macbeth believes that what he has done will never be washed away from his conscience. He will always have the death of King Duncan hanging over his head.
Unfortunately, this is the last we see of Macbeth’s conscience. Tormented over the likelihood of being unmasked as Duncan’s murderer, Macbeth continues his evil ways in an attempt to stay on the throne. His vaulting ambition has surfaced once more to overthrow any spot of good left in him and he shows no more remorse for Duncan’s murder. Wanting to become “safely” king, Macbeth plots out the murder of one of his best friends Banquo, the only other person besides Macbeth and his wife, who is aware of the three witches and their prophecy. Again, this shows that his need to succeed in life is overshadowing his conscience. Macbeth’s last, and most evil deed is the slaying of Macduff’s family.
Macbeth puts innocent women and children to death in an attempt lure Macduff back to Scotland so he can have him murdered as well. At this point in the play, it seems as though Macbeth doesn’t have a good bone in his body. The little voice of reason inside his head has been snuffed out, and he decides that the only way to be a good King is to make drastic and rash decisions. Macbeth unravels before our eyes and is finally beheaded by Macduff in revenge for the slaying of his family.
The war between Macbeth’s conscience and his vaulting ambition is not fought on a battle field but still had all the exemplary attributes of one that is. Violent acts were carried out, blood was shed, and people died. The struggle going on In Macbeth’s head was finally over, his ambition the victor, and Macbeth himself the defeated. When the hurly-burly was done, the war in Macbeth’s mind was both lost and won.