How does Shakespeare present the conflict of good and evil in his play, Macbeth? Essay
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How do these extremes reflect the time in which the play was written? (20 marks)
The play Macbeth presents the antithesis of good and evil as a concept that is absolute. The play follows the common religious beliefs of the time in presenting three main causes of evil: the total depravity of man, temptation from others and satanic influence. Good is also presented but is not the focus of the play. This is a play about evil, treason and uncertainty – a reflection of the turbulent times of Jacobean England under James I where the conflict between good and evil actions was very real.
In examining the three ways in which Shakespeare presents the conflict, a good place to start would be total depravity.
Primarily we see this battle of conscience versus will of the flesh personified in the character of Macbeth. In Act 1 Scene 4, after Duncan names Malcom as his successor, Macbeth laments that Malcom is an obstacle: “On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, / For in my way it lies.” We can see at this stage Macbeth is still undecided at what his course of action will be. His conscience tells him to give up, to “fall down”, but if he is to fulfil his desire of becoming king he must “o’erleap” such hindrances. He goes on to say, “Stars hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Evil committed in darkness is a recurring theme across the play.
Macbeth wishes to hide his evil deeds in the night, out of the sight of men and arguably out of the sight of God, as light typifies all that is good and at the time God was considered to be the ultimate good. This meaning would not have been lost on a Jacobean audience. The next couplet further emphasises the discord man can experience within himself: “The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, / Which the eye fears when it is done to see.” This conveys that man can be blind to his own actions, and not even be aware he is committing evil until his eye fearfully surveys the damage caused. The dual use of rhyming couplets at the end of the speech emphasises how twisted and evil Macbeth is becoming.
This idea of man choosing darkness was a common idea of the times. The Puritans believed strongly in the doctrine of Total Depravity, the idea that when given the choice between good and evil man will eventually chose sin by default and is not capable of doing good without divine intervention. In John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ he explains evil as “a hereditary, depravity and corruption of our nature”. However, Banquo is an example of how the Jacobeans believed a religious man can overcome temptation.
He is subjected to the same temptation as Macbeth but in Act 2 Scene 1 he is seen praying, “Merciful powers / Restrain me in the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to repose.” He asks for his depraved nature to be restrained so he will be able to choose to do good. It is possible that he himself is considering killing the king. The “cursed thoughts” that he speaks of have begun to transpose as nightmares, which represent how darkness is seeping into even the Scottish people’s repose. Sleep would normally be associated with peace and rest, but slowly it becomes a metaphor for death and decay.
Following on from that the second way Shakespeare presents good and evil is temptation from others. We see this presented clearly with the scenario in Act 1 Scene 5 between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth finishes reading Macbeth’s letter she states that she fears, “thy nature, / It is too full of the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” She fears that Macbeth’s nature is too kind to take the most direct method to kingship: murdering Duncan. Here we can see how well she knows Macbeth and what drives him. She describes human kindness as “milk”. We know Lady Macbeth is currently nursing children, and milk in that sense represents all that is good, natural and necessary for survival. She implies that kindness flows as easily from Macbeth as milk from a nursing mother.
She continues by saying, “Thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it”, implying that Macbeth is an ambitious man who desires to be great, but he refuses to let evil influence his aspirations. He “wouldst not play false.” She recognises that without any external influence he will never commit the evil deeds that he is tempted towards. This is conveyed to us when she promises to, “chastise with the valour of my tongue.” The use of “chastise” creates a violent image, as if she intends to give him the verbal equivalent to a beating. She wishes to pass her boldness on to Macbeth, in variance to the typical submissive attitude that was expected of wives in that era.
She further emphasises her dark and rebellious nature when the messenger informs her that Duncan is to stay in her castle that night. With an element of twisted glee she interprets the hoarse cry of the raven to foreshadow, “the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.” She refers to the castle as if it belonged solely to her, and as if the murder of Duncan will be of her doing with minimal help from Macbeth. She is presented to the audience as just as ambitious as Macbeth, if not more. The raven itself is a bird typically associated with darkness, death and evil. It is even more ominous that it has croaked itself hoarse, conveying that evil is already corrupting Scotland before that cataclysmic deed is even committed.
Lady Macbeth is adamant that she wants any form of femininity, no matter how mild, to be removed from her so that she can carry out her task efficiently. She expresses a desire to be “unsexed”. The milk analogy is continued when she asks evil spirits to, “Take my milk for gall.” She wishes that what she referred to in her previous speech as “the milk of human kindness” to be removed entirely from her and replaced with malice and evil.
When she begins to tempt Macbeth she tells him that, “Your hand, your tongue; look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t.” She encourages Macbeth to shed his innocent, good exterior and unleash the serpent that lies below. Through the direct contrast between a flower and serpent Shakespeare conveys how incompatible good and evil are – Macbeth must choose one, for he cannot balance both. Shakespeare, through Lady Macbeth, presents good as something fickle and easily corruptible, the weaker side in the conflict between good and evil.
Furthermore, referencing to a serpent is a Biblical metaphor of when Eve tempted Adam into sin. That’s not the only time in the Bible that evil women help men fall into sin: other cases include Samson and Delilah and Herod and Herodias. The Bible was taken extremely seriously in Jacobean times, and due to these beliefs that women are easier to tempt than men, Jacobean wives were expected to be submissive and obedient to their husbands, who would keep them on the right track. In his controversial book ‘The Monstrous Regiment of Women’ John Knox stated that “To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature.”
A woman with influence over her husband would have been taboo, but a Queen like Lady Macbeth with power over the country she ruled would have been even more unacceptable in the social hierarchy of society (Knox wrote his book in response to the reign of Elizabeth I, who died three years before Macbeth was produced). King James, who the play was written for, would have been a staunch complementarian. Ultimately Lady Macbeth’s actions lead to her demise, leaving the audience to wonder how differently her life would have been if she had not tempted Macbeth. It could be argued that the tragedy in Macbeth hinged on Lady Macbeth usurping her prescribed role. Many scholars would claim that Shakespeare was a feminist, but even if that was true he would not have been able to express such views under James’s reign.
Finally, the most effective way Shakespeare presents the conflict of good and evil in Macbeth is through the involvement of the supernatural and divine. In Macbeth good and evil is not confined to an internal conflict within man but is also represented through a spiritual war with frequent references to God and Satan, the ultimate adversaries. This is best conveyed when Duncan is killed, and then at the climax of the play when good ultimately prevails.
In Act 2 Scene 3, when Macduff brings the news of Duncan’s murder, he cries, “O horror, horror, horror!” The tone of this line is pure shock, and the repetition of “horror” conveys that the deed is so horrible and inconceivable that Macduff is lost for words. He continues to deplore, “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece”. In the Bible it reads that, “God is not the author of confusion”, so that means Duncan’s death could only be a masterpiece of demonic proportions.
The audience is given a sense of how heinous a deed this is when he continues; “Most sacrilegious murder hath broken ope / The Lord’s anointed temple.” In the conflict between good and evil in Macbeth Macduff is presented as being a religious man, like Banquo. He uses another direct Biblical reference, this time citing verses about kingship. Old Testament kings were directly anointed by God, and it is said the body of a holy man is the temple of God’s spirit. Violent imagery is used when he talks about the temple being, “broken ope”, implying that the spirit was forcibly and criminally removed from its righteous place.
Following on from this, the Divine Right of Kings was a major factor in James I’s court. This was a Puritan doctrine that said each king was predestined to take the throne by God and treason against the king was also a blasphemous crime against God. In the epistle dedicatory of the King James/Authorised Bible it reads, “Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when first he sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us.” The doctrine’s purpose was routed in kings like James wishing to reinforce their position rather than Biblical fidelity. James was short and did not have the physical appearance of a typical king, and he had recently survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Catholic group. He had many reason to fear for his right to the throne.
The many demonic references were also deep routed in Jacobean culture, where fears of demons, witches and witches were very real. Hundreds of women were burnt as witches and James himself penned an essay named ‘Daemonologie’ after he believed demonic forces tried to kill his wife.
To conclude, in Macbeth good ultimately wins the conflict: Macbeth is killed and the throne of Scotland is joined with England. God’s hand is placed back on Scotland in a slightly deus ex machina fashion. Shakespeare presents the audience with many different interpretations of the conflict between good and evil in keeping with the Jacobean culture, the most effective of which I believe is his use of the supernatural.