AQA LITB3 Practice essay – To what extent is Macbeth responsible for his own downfall?

Hey there, this is a practice essay (Ie. not a real past paper question) that I completed for homework over half term. I haven’t had it marked yet, but thought it seemed decent enough to post! Reading over what I’ve written, one thing I’d focus on more if I could re-write it, is probably the influence of the witches, considering some of Heccat’s dialogue (‘trade and traffic with Macbeth / in riddles and affairs of death,’ the apparitions, the interpretation of Macbeth as a ‘wayward son’ for some further structural analysis etc.). I did write this with a conclusion (I concluded that he was the source of his downfall, but not responsible for it), but for some reason, it wasn’t saved to my laptop, so I’ll update this when I get my grade back.


The eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s Macbeth undeniably suffers a tragic downfall, from the ‘noble’ thane of Glamis in the play’s exposition, to an ‘abhorred tyrant’ in its denouement. Though it would outwardly appear that Macbeth is rather indisputably corrupted by extraneous forces of evil that lead him to his demise, such as Lady Macbeth and the three witches, perhaps a stronger interpretation is that such forces merely bring his latent evil into being. Ultimately, if we consider a psychoanalytic reading of the text, then we can regard Macbeth’s madness and guilt as a form of psychological defence, rather than proof of his good nature. The source of his downfall lies not with the malign guidance of others, but with the ‘black and deep desires’ of his own subconscious. However, whether Macbeth can actually be held ‘responsible’ for this is subject to interpretation, as he tragically seeks to repress such urges.

It could be interpreted, that as Macbeth is depicted as a ‘noble’ and ‘valiant’ warrior in the play’s exposition, he is an inherently decent character who allows himself to be corrupted by his, wife, and he is thus, not responsible for his own downfall. As Shakespeare uses the imagery of the ‘[eagle]’ and the ‘lion’ to characterise Macbeth as noble and brave and fully ‘deserv[ing]’ of the praise he receives then perhaps Lady Macbeth acts as a femme fatale and preys on his good ‘nature’, which she speculates is ‘too full o’th’ milk of human kindness’ by ‘pour[ing] her spirits in [his] ear, and goading him to commit regicide. Macbeth’s guilt is clear before he even commits to ‘treasonous malice,’ as the very thought of killing Duncan is ‘horrid’ to him, making his ‘seated heart knock at [his ribs], and this would certainly affirm the view that Lady Macbeth ‘chastise[s]’ him into the act and that she is to be held responsible for his downfall, as she is the character that incites his ‘illness’ and his villainy. Though Macbeth falters and states that ‘we will proceed no further in this business,’ the use of sequencing, as he is very quickly ‘settled’ into killing Duncan in addition to Lady Macbeth’s recognition that he already has the ‘desire,’ then it is a stronger interpretation to consider that her intervention is minor and that Macbeth’s earlier descriptions as valiant ‘eagle[s]’ and ‘lion[s]’ merely suggest his predatory nature and delight to ‘bathe in [the] reeking wounds’ of battle. As Macbeth surpasses Lady Macbeth’s mediation by murdering Banquo, ignoring her request for him to ‘leave this’ , his feelings of unrest cannot solely be attributed to her – perhaps `she is not solely responsible for his downfall.

It is also a feasible interpretation to suggest that as Macbeth plays victim to the ‘supernatural soliciting’ of the witches and is seduced into corruption by their favourable prophecies and equivocations, he is thus, not solely responsible for his downfall. Structurally, the witches are established as agents of chaos from the play’s very exposition. Not only do they frame the play’s narrative, but also establish their ability to render things ‘fair’ in nature, perhaps like ‘brave Macbeth’ into things that are ‘foul’ in their ominous chiasmus ‘fair is foul / and foul is fair’. Such control over Macbeth is implied further, as he unknowingly echoes their chiasmus in conversation to Banquo as he remarks ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’ and manifests as soon as ‘[their] charm’s wound up’ in a sort of proleptic irony. As they show an apparent power to control the speech and actions of Macbeth, it is not altogether surprising that he is left in a ‘rapt’ state at their claims that he is to inherit the title of ‘Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘King hereafter’. However, though the witches are formidable in their powers, they are clearly not all-powerful; as the witches ‘curse a man forbid’ at the beginning of I:III, the couplet ‘though his bark shall not be lost / yet it shall be tempest tossed’ indicates that though the can manipulate nature to a certain extent, it is not in their power to exert complete destruction. Thus, the use of ‘noble’ Banquo as a foil, whose recognition that ‘To win us to our harm / the instruments of darkness tell us truths / win us with honest trifles / to betray’s in deepest consequence’ leads to the view, that, in spite of their malicious intentions, the witches can only partially lead Macbeth to his downfall. Though the witches are ‘there to meet with Macbeth’ and not Banquo, as he falsely interprets that ‘two truths are told,’ he essentially exhibits clear ‘vaulting ambition’, that is characteristic to him and not the witches, perhaps they are merely manifestations of his own ambivalence and inner conflict that drives him to commit ‘dread exploits’ lending to the interpretation that he is clearly the one to be held accountable for his downfall.

If we consider a psychoanalytic reading of Macbeth and consider him to be an inherently evil character who has previously suppressed his ‘black and deep desires’, then perhaps he is actually responsible for his own downfall. As Lady Macbeth reports how Macbeth ‘burned in desire’ to hear the prophecies of the witches, it is clear that his earlier soliloquy, which can be seen to reveal his innermost thoughts, reveals his subconscious intentions to kill Duncan. The subjunctive mood of Macbeth’s statement that ‘chance may crown [him] without [his] stir’ perhaps reveals not his innocent intentions, but instead, the possibility that he ‘may’ intervene. This is furthered as he speculates that Duncan’s ‘murther yet but is fantastical,’ as he unknowingly comments on the inevitability of treason, it seems to indicate that his evil has been present from the play’s very exposition. As his latent evil is eventually brought into being, the witches, who would have been perceived, contextually as proponents of the devil refer to him as ‘wicked,’ branding him rather indisputably as a gothic villain – the notion that an advocate of Satan would regard him to be evil potentially affirms that he is again, the one to be held accountable for his demise. However, if we consider the prospect that Macbeth is unstable, seeing an unreal ‘air-drawn dagger’ that provokes him to such deeds and plagued by ‘the torture of [his] mind,’ though the source of his downfall does lie within him, perhaps he cannot be held responsible for it due to his unstable state of mind.

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