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“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare is a play in which a central concern is clarified by the contrast between two characters, Macbeth and Banquo. They are noble and well respected soldiers who react very differently after receiving a prophecy regarding their futures. Through their actions, the dramatist explores the theme of the corrupting power of unchecked ambition, whose negative effects strongly emphasises the contrast between the characters.
Prior to the prophecy, Macbeth and Banquo are introduced as admirable figures in Act 1, scene 2.
After leading their men to victory in battle, they are described as “As sparrow eagles, or the hare the lion.” A lion would never fear a hare, so too an eagle a sparrow. This suggests that Macbeth and Banquo are incredibly fearless warriors who can always fight their way to victory on the battlefront. Furthermore, Macbeth is also compared to “Bellona’s bridegroom.” Bellona was the Roman goddess of War, emphasising that Macbeth is a godlike figure of war who is strong and mighty on the battlefield.
We are introduced to the play’s central concern in Act 1, scene 3 when the two characters react very differently to the prophecies given by three witches. After receiving the prophecy, Banquo sees Macbeth “start,” which shows that Macbeth flinches as he feels fear, suggesting he immediately imagines himself as king due to unnatural means. He also seems “wrapt withal,” which suggests he is lost in thought and has fallen into a dreamy state of bliss. This brings about the theme of the corrupting power of unchecked ambition as Macbeth ambition to be king is great enough to make him think of cruel thoughts and render him into a trance.
In addition, he commands the witches to stay and tell him more:
“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more.”
Macbeth is clearly fascinated with the prophecies the witches have told him. He knows that he could only become king through wicked ways, yet he ignores his better judgement and puts his trust in the witches due to his great ambition. Therefore his unchecked ambition leaves him vulnerable to the deadly influence of the witches. This vulnerability illustrates the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition. Meanwhile, Banquo wants the witches to continue speaking because he is curious as to what they want to say, and he is fully aware that they are “devils.” Banquo also gives a warning to Macbeth:
“to win us at our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequences.”
Banquo recognises that the witches could be telling lies in order to win his and Macbeth’s trust to betray them in the future and he warns Macbeth of this. This in fact foreshadows Macbeth’s fate as he puts in faith in the witches, but results in his downfall. Banquo is also warning himself to not listen to the witches, which shows he is cautious and wary of the evil that surrounds him. The fact that he warns himself not to fall into traps and commit evil deeds reinforces his morality and principles.
The contrast between Macbeth and Banquo’s characters is shown in further detail through their behaviour after receiving the prophecy from the witches. One of the witches’ predictions was that Macbeth would be crowned Thane of Cawdor- this became true. As a result, Macbeth experiences dark thought of murdering King Duncan:
“why do I yield to that suggestion,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs”
The thought of murdering the king terrifies Macbeth and shakes him to the core. The fact that the mere thought of murder can provoke such a strong response in Macbeth foreshadows that he will suffer greatly in the aftermath of the crime and will be overwhelmed with guilt and regret. The theme of the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition is brought to our attention through the fact that it is Macbeth who first thinks of murder, not the witches. This shows the strength of his ambition and that he is willing to sacrifice all morality and nobility to achieve it. This unchecked ambition is the driving force which he cannot control. Macbeth’s dark thoughts directly contrast with Banquo’s showing a moral resilience that Macbeth lacks:
“A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep; merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose.”
Banquo is unable to control his subconscious at night- he has traitorous dreams regarding the prophecy. However, his morality is strong enough to allow him to check his ambitions when he is awake. Plus, Banquo tries to resist sleep in order to stop his dark thoughts from forming, contrasting with Macbeth. Unlike Macbeth, Banquo does not “yield to that suggestion.” Despite his better judgement and knowing the many cons of killing the king, Macbeth decides to commit regicide. This illustrates the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition as Macbeth’s incredible ambition to be king has made him defy logic, as shown in Act1 scene 7, when he admits that his only reason for killing the king is “Vaulting ambition.” The corruptive powers of unchecked ambition have also led Macbeth to sacrifice his morals and commit an atrocious sin, whereas Banquo remains noble and loyal to the King.
Another strong point of contrast between the characters of Macbeth and Banquo is their different relationships with God. As shown in the previous quotation, Banquo prays to God to have mercy on him, which suggests he feels close to God and he recognises these dark thoughts as being immoral and corrupt. However, Macbeth betrays God in the direst way by committing regicide. As a consequence, in the immediate aftermath of killing Duncan in Act 2, scene 2, Macbeth claims “I could not say “Amen.”” Macbeth stated in the Act 1, scene 7 soliloquy that he was willing to sacrifice his place in the afterlife in order to be king in this world. After committing the murder, Macbeth attempted to pray but failed, suggesting he has lost all connections to God and religion. During the time in which the play is set, people believed the King was God’s chosen appointee. By murdering an important religious figure, Macbeth has been isolated from God from this point forth. This isolation from God portrays the theme of the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition as Macbeth is very lonely in such a religious world.
Another clear point of contrast between Macbeth and Banquo is their ability to quell their inner dark thoughts. Banquo is tempted by the witches’ prophecies like Macbeth, however, he is able to check his ambition in way that Macbeth cannot:
“Why on the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well
And set me up in hope? But hush, no more.”
Banquo wonders if his prophecy will come true like it has for Macbeth, however he tells himself to “hush, no more” as he does not want to give in to any dark thoughts. This reinforces the idea of Banquo being able to check his ambitions and remain loyal to the king. Contrastingly, Macbeth has become fixated on the prophecies. Even though he has been crowned king, he is still not content. Macbeth’s ambition is alive and it changes to remaining King. Macbeth is unable to rest in peace:
“Better be with the dead…
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy.”
Macbeth is unable to rest peacefully due to the constant fear, guilt and paranoia he feels. The use of the word “ecstasy” suggests he is experiencing agonizing mental torture. Macbeth is now suffering from the sleep deprivation foreshadowed by the auditory hallucination in the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s death in Act 2, scene 2. The extent of this suffering is reinforced by the fact that he claims it would be better to be dead than to continue to suffer his current mental torture. This illustrates the theme of the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition as his never ending ambition has made him tormented by paranoia, which will ultimately lead to the murder and Banquo.
The contrast between Macbeth and Banquo is further illustrated in the key scene Act 3, scene 4 after Banquo is murdered. Upon hearing that Banquo is dead, Macbeth also finds out Banquo’s son, Fleance, has escaped from the murderers. Macbeth is unable to control his emotions and claims, “Here comes my fit again!” Macbeth suffers from a spasm of fear; he is losing his courage, which suggests Macbeth’s stability is beginning to deteriorate due to the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition. Fleance’s escape worries him so much because he fears for his place on the throne, which is stated in the Act 1 scene 7 soliloquy when Macbeth talks of the “even-handed justice.” Macbeth fears harm will be done to him as he has inflicted harm onto others. Macbeth worsens when he sees a hallucination of Banquo’s ghost. The fact that Macbeth can see Banquo’s ghost is significant in itself. The motif of hallucination in the play is symbolic of the clash between Macbeth’s unchecked ambition and his morality:
“Thou canst not say I did it; never shake/Thy gory locks at me!”
The disturbing vision of Macbeth’s mind he cannot escape the fact he murdered his former partner and he is now suffering from this guilt. This guilt is also indicated by the fact that Banquo’s ghost is described as having “gory locks” as blood is symbolic of guilt. The central concern of the corrupting powers of unchecked ambition is shown through the paranoia, guilt and fear Macbeth suffers due to his great ambition to remain King.
The corrupting powers of unchecked ambition result in Macbeth deteriorating even more. In Act 4, scene 1, Macbeth returns to the witches to find out more of his prophecy. His trust in evil spirits definitely contrasts with Banquo, who turned to God to help him vanquish his dark inner thoughts. In Act 3, scene 4, Macbeth’s character worsens as he decides to become more relentless:
“The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.”
Macbeth decides to act upon any fears or suspicions he may have; he will kill anyone he views as a threat to his position as King. He has vowed to be much more ruthless and tyrannical. Macbeth’s unchecked ambition has turned him into an appalling tyrant who is hated by all; this contrasts with the previous Macbeth who was admired by all in Act 1, scene 2. Macbeth proves this statement when he goes on a rampage and kills Macduff’s entire family in Act 4. Macduff’s wife and children posed no threat whatsoever to Macbeth yet he killed them anyway, showing that Macbeth paranoia is increasing and he is becoming more tyrannical. It is important to notice Macbeth kills Macduff’s family at the end of an emotive scene between a mother and her son who showed great affection and love for each other as it emphasises Macbeth’s shocking and barbaric brutality. The corrupting powers of unchecked ambition have made Macbeth into an emotionless oppressor who has nothing but his ambition.
By Act 5, Macbeth appears to be a shadow of the man he once was, illustrating the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition. In the Act 5, scene 3 soliloquy, Macbeth takes a moment to reflect on what he has lost after embarking on a course of evil crimes:
“that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have.”
This strongly emphasises the central concern of the play. By choosing to follow his ambition, Macbeth has lost his friends, love and honour as well as becoming isolated from his wife and killing those he was once close to. Macbeth’s character is a tragic hero as he has now fully recognised the faults in his way. He recovers a shred of sympathy from the audience at this point as the audience lament what Macbeth could have been had he not chosen a path of evil. The theme of the corrupting powers of unchecked ambition is shown in full depth at the end of the play as Macbeth is ultimately killed in revenge for the evil crimes he has committed.
“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare is a play in which the central concern- the corruptive powers of unchecked ambition-is explored through the contrast between the characters Macbeth and Banquo. Macbeth’s unchecked ambition led him to commit heinous crimes and lose his nobility and morals. However, Banquo’s checked ambition allowed him to retain his nobility and morals till his death.
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