Macbeth  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Macbeth is among the most well known of William Shakespeare's plays, as well as his shortest surviving tragedy. It is frequently performed at professional and community theatres around the world. The play, loosely based real events, is often seen as an archetypal tale of the dangers of the lust for power and betrayal of friends.

The character of Lady Macbeth is often cited as a manipulatrice and a femme fatale.

Themes and motifs

The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Ambition

A main theme within Macbeth is the destruction that follows when ambition goes beyond moral constraints. Macbeth is a brave general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil, yet he is deeply ambitious and desires power. He murders King Duncan against his better judgement and then wallows in guilt and paranoia. Toward the play's end, he is in a kind of boastful madness. Lady Macbeth pursues her goals with greater determination, yet is less capable of dealing with the guilt from her immorality. One of Shakespeare's most forceful female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong afterward, yet is herself eventually driven to death by the effect of Macbeth's murders on her conscience. In each case, ambition, spurred by the prophecies of the witches, is what drives the couple to commit their atrocities. An issue that the play raises is that once one decides to use violence to further one's quest for power, it is difficult to stop. Macbeth finds that there are always potential threats to the throne – such as Banquo, Fleance, and Macduff – and he is tempted to use violent means to dispose of them.

Masculinity

Lady Macbeth
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'

Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishing herself to be “unsexed,” and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a woman like her should give birth only to boys. In the same manner that Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the assassins he hires to murder Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression; whenever they discuss manhood, violence follows. Their understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to descend into chaos.

However, in "Macbeth", women are prone to contain violence and evil intentions. The witches’ prophecies spark Macbeth’s ambitions and then encourage his violent behavior, while Lady Macbeth provides the drive and the will behind her husband’s plotting. After reading the letter her husband has sent telling of the witches' prophecies about him, Lady Macbeth believes:

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it

Furthermore, the only divine being to appear is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Because "Macbeth" traces the root of chaos and evil to women, some critics argue that it is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. The male characters are similarly brutal and prone to evil as the women, but the aggression of the female characters is more striking because it contradicts expectations of how women ought to behave. Lady Macbeth’s behavior certainly shows that women can be just as ambitious and ruthless as men. Whether it is the gender constraints of her society or because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on manipulation of her husband rather than violence to achieve her ends.

The play does put forth less destructive definition of manhood towards the end. When Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child, Malcolm consoles him unsympathetically with encouragement to take the news in “manly” fashion and use it to fuel his hatred of Macbeth. Macduff tells the young heir apparent that he has a mistaken understanding of masculinity. To Malcolm’s suggestion, “Dispute it like a man,” Macduff replies, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man” (4.3.221–223). After hearing the news of his son's death at the hands of Macbeth, Siward receives this fact somewhat complacently. Malcolm responds: “He’s worth more sorrow [than you have expressed] / And that I’ll spend for him” (5.11.16–17). Malcolm’s comment shows that he has learned the lesson Macduff gave him on the feeling nature of true masculinity. It also suggests that, with Malcolm’s coronation, order will be restored to the Kingdom of Scotland.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Macbeth" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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