Comparing The Downfall of Man in Macbeth and Moby Dick

Categories: Moby Dick

It can be stated that mans greatest downfall is his greed. No matter how much a person has, they will always want more. In Melville's Moby Dick and Shakespeare's Macbeth, the character traits of the tragic heroes, and many similar outside factors combine to create a spiral downfall effect which essentially leads each character to his demise. Each of these character's downfalls are brought upon as a result of their predetermined fates, their ambitions to reach an unattainable goal, and their foolish choices.

From fortune cookies to Miss Cleo, many people around the world today believe in the ability to see into the future and determine ones fate. Both Macbeth and Captain Ahab have predetermined fates which conflict with their goals, thereby causing them to be unachievable. Moby Dick is riddled with evidence foreshadowing that the Pequod, Captain Ahab, and his crew are doomed from the moment it sets sail. "Ishmael's narrative contains many references to fate, creating the impression that the Pequod's doom is inevitable" (Chong).

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When Ishmael first arrives in New Bedford, he stays at a very dark and gloomy inn decorated with clubs and spears, and other whaling equipment. The appearance of the Spouter-Inn develops the atmosphere of tragedy, and even the owner's name, Peter Coffin, hints that in due course, death will ensue. On one wall, Ishmael is perplexed by an oil painting, which he eventually interprets to be that of a whale attacking a ship;

The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

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(Melville 10)

This depiction foreshadows that going out to sea can bring no good, and that Ishmael will have the same terrible fate as the Cape-Horner in the painting. It is at the inn that Ishmael meets Queequeg, a savage, whom he eventually befriends. A few days later, Ishmael and Queequeg set off to Nantucket to find a whaling ship to join. Moments after they sign the documents that pertain to joining the Pequod's crew, they are approached by a tattered old man, a prophet, who asks them, "[Was there] anything [in the documents] about your souls?" (Melville 82). The reference to the crew selling their souls indicates that they are doomed, and will not return from this expedition. The Pequod is, "Named after a Native American tribe in Massachusetts that did not long survive the arrival of white men and thus memorializing an extinction, [it] is a symbol of doom" (Chong).

Shakespeare's Macbeth begins with an unnatural scene of the weird sisters meeting in a thunderstorm, and just as the dark gloomy inn in Moby Dick, this effectively creates an unnatural mood and foreshadows the tragic theme of the play, "Shakespeare's Weird Sister's are intended to symbolize or represent the metaphysical world of evil spirits" (Curry 31). When Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the weird sisters, they say nothing except, "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" (Shakespeare 1.3.50-53). When questioned, the sisters will not respond, and leave Macbeth wondering about this strange fortune. He is already thane of Glamis, and shortly after the prophecy, he is appointed thane of Cawdor. This intrigues Macbeth because he believes that since the first two prophecies have come true, the third will also come true. Since witches represent evil, it is essentially foreshadowing that nothing good can come of these prophecies. Both literary pieces are filled with prophecies and clues that foreshadow that tragedy will eventually occur.

Our ambition can lead us to accomplish great tasks. In a song by the late Tupac Shakur, in which he is "driven by his ambitions, [to] desire [a] higher position" (Shakur), Tupac tells of how he was raised in a extremely poor neighborhood and worked hard to scramble his way out of poverty to become the musical success he is today. The driving force that pushes him to achieve all this is his ambition to become a successful rap artist. In each of the literary pieces, both tragic characters, Captain Ahab and Macbeth, suffer as a result of their strong ambitions to attain unreasonable goals. Captain Ahab's ambition is a result of "his losing his leg last voyage" (Melville 83). Before Ishmael has joined the Pequod's crew, he asks if he may speak with Captain Ahab, to which he is responded, "[he's] sort of sick, and yet he don't look so. In fact, he ain't sick; but no, he isn't well either" (Melville 71). Captain Peleg is describing that Ahab is insane, without directly saying it. This insanity stems from Ahab's obsession with hunting the whale that took his leg; it is his ambition to seek revenge that has caused his psychological damage.

When Captain Ahab finally makes a formal appearance to the crew, he tells them, "Who-so-ever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw...he shall have this gold ounce" (Melville 143). Captain Ahab is so set on his objective to hunt Moby Dick that he is promising a reward to the crewmember who spots him. The crew then questions whether or not they are hunting the same whale that took the Captain's leg, and they are told that the whale they are hunting is indeed, Moby Dick, and that Captain Ahab would, "chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before [he gave] up" (Melville 144). It is in this speech that the Captain revels his true reason for the expedition, to seek revenge on Moby Dick. He will do anything necessary to seek this revenge, even if it means risking his life, and the lives of his crew.

Macbeth's ambition stems from the weird sisters' three prophecies. Two of them have already come true, and so Macbeth works hard to guarantee that the third, he will be king, also becomes a reality. Both he, and Lady Macbeth devise a plan to invite King Duncan and his two guards to stay the night, inhibit the guards awareness with wine, and murder the King in his sleep; "[The guards] drenched natures lie as in death, What cannot you and I perform upon the unguarded Duncan?" (Shakespeare 1.7.75-77). Macbeth briefly thinks about backing out of the plan, but his wife convinces him to follow through; "Shakespeare uses Macbeth to show the terrible effects that ambition and guilt can have on a man who lacks strength of character" (Phillips).

While the King is asleep in Macbeth's castle, he follows through with the plan, and later informs his wife that, "[he] has done the deed" (Shakespeare 2.2.19). It is at this point that Macbeth is essentially doomed. He has taken the life of an innocent man, and thus his life will also eventually be taken. Although the source for both Macbeth's and Ahab's ambition are quite different, they are still equal because each of these ambitions is the result of, and driven by, an outside force. Macbeth's ambition results from the prophecies, and is fed by his wife's continuing pressure to fulfill his destiny, and Ahab's ambition results from the loss of his leg, and is driven by the madness that has infected him as a consequence of years of obsessing over the whale.

There is not one person who has never made a foolish decision that they regret in retrospect. The final element that contributes to the tragic characters' downfalls, and leads them to their deaths, is the foolish and unwise actions they choose to make. As stated previously, the Pequod is doomed to fail even before it has set sail. Although Captain Ahab is not in his right mind, he still understands that it has been predicted that he will be killed by the whale, which he reveals in a soliloquy in his cabin; "The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and-Aye! I lost this leg" (Melville 149). Ahab knows of the prophecy that predicts he will be torn limb from limb by the great whale, however, he foolishly chooses to ignore it, creating his own prophecy that puts both him and his crewmembers in danger; "I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That's more than ye, ye great gods, ever were" (Melville 149).

Ahab has chosen to predict his own fate that he will kill Moby Dick, and then states that he is a better prophet than the gods ever were. Ahab is insulting the gods of fate, which foreshadows that they will punish him by making sure that the original prophecy, of him being torn limb from limb, is fulfilled. "His tremendous overconfidence, or hubris, leads him to defy common sense and believe that, like a god, he can enact his will and remain immune to the forces of nature" (Chong). He then idiotically continues to pursue Moby Dick, and on the third day of the chase, Captain Ahab is pulled down to the depths of the ocean by a wire from his own crewmember's harpoon;

The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;--ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew [Ahab] was gone. (Melville 507)

With the first prophecy now complete, the crew is left without a captain, however within the next minute, "concentric circles seized the boat, and all its crew...and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of site" (Melville 507). Captain Ahab's madness and ambition led him to make foolish choices, which ultimately resulted in his death and the death of his crew. The final sentence, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (Melville 508), shows that with Captain Ahab dead, and the battle between man and beast ended, order is once again restored to the ocean.

Macbeth's first foolish choice is made when he chooses to kill King Duncan. As stated previously, immediately after he kills the King, it is inevitable that he will die a tragic death, because he has shed the blood of the innocent. From this moment on, there is nothing he can do to stop the fact that he will eventually suffer a disastrous death, however he still continues to make more irrational decisions. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth becomes paranoid that Banquo will expose him for the murderer he really is; "Our fears in Banquo stick deep; and in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be fear'd" (Shakespeare 3.3.53-55).

He reveals that he fears Banquo's nobility will lead him to expose Macbeth, this foreshadows that Macbeth is already plotting something evil against his friend. He hires three murders to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, and briefly after he is informed that the murder has been carried out, he is visit by the ghost of Banquo. Macbeth's ambition has driven him to insanity, and he becomes obsessed with the weird sisters' prophecies, just as Ahab is driven to madness by the whale and becomes infatuated over seeking his revenge. When he confronts the sisters, they show him three apparitions; the first tells him to beware of Macduff; the second that no man born of woman can harm him; and the third that he shall not be defeated until Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane hill (Shakespeare 4.1). The apparitions cause Macbeth to feel overconfident which slowly brings him closer to his end.

What he overlooks is the fact that he must be wary of Macduff, this warns that Macduff will overthrow Macbeth's reign as king. When Macduff and his army attack Dunsinane castle, Macbeth feels overconfident because no man born of women can harm him, it is then that Macduff tells him that, "[he] was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd" (Shakespeare 5.8.19-20). It is at this point that Macbeth finally realizes that the three apparitions were riddles, and that he will be defeated. "[Macbeth] goes down fighting, bringing the play full circle: it begins with Macbeth winning on the battlefield and ends with him dying in combat" (Phillips). With Macbeth slain, order is returned to Scotland, similar to how it is returned to the sea when the ship is dragged under.

It is evident that although both of the characters reach their end through completely different paths and events that occurred, the three main causes of their downfall remain the same; fate, ambition, and their actions. "Desire. [it is] Man's greatest pleasure. [but also] Man's greatest downfall" (DeLatore).

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Comparing The Downfall of Man in Macbeth and Moby Dick. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Comparing The Downfall of Man in Macbeth and Moby Dick essay
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