AQA LITB3 PPQ – JUNE 2010 – ‘At the end of the play, Malcolm describes Macbeth as a butcher. Do you think that Macbeth is merely portrayed as a butcher?’

Here’s another band 6 Macbeth mock I did in my own time, this time, focussing in on the excessive violence Macbeth’s tragic regression than the last.


Malcolm’s description of Macbeth as a ‘butcher’ in the play’s denouement is certainly an appropriate one, as he is responsible for many brutal, excessive and unnecessary murders within the play all of which become more ignoble and uncivilised as it progresses. However, though Macbeth’s villainy is obvious, so is his degree of humanity, evident in his early doubts, later disillusionment and his tortured conscience, which could be perceived as transcending that of a mere butcher. Furthermore, though it could be interpreted that he is indeed a savage and trained killer, unfit for sovereign rule, his final soliloquy affirms a philosophical introspection not characteristic to an unthinking butcher. Ultimately, the interpretation of Macbeth as a tragic hero is a stronger one – his unravelling corruption implies that he kills out of madness and paranoia to ensure his safety rather than the evil intent of a butcher.

It could be perceived that, as Shakespeare characterises Macbeth as a typical gothic villain, committing brutal and savage ‘muthers … too terrible for the ear,’ that worsen as the play progresses, then Macbeth is indeed portrayed as a mere butcher. Macbeth’s initial act of regicide is a ‘more than bloody deed,’ excessive to the extent that it is ‘unmannerly breached with gore,’ exercised without any honour, or Duncan’s provocation. Macbeth’s butchery is furthered, as Shakespeare’s allusion to ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’  within Macbeth’s soliloquy, which can be seen to reveal his innermost thoughts, certainly aids his characterisation as an uncivilised butcher, as he describes his movements towards Duncan like that of ‘Tarquin’s ravishing strides,’ evoking his inhumane and tyrannical spirit as he proceeds with the murder. The later murders of Banquo and in particular, the family of Macduff, shown through the asyndetic list of his ‘wife, children, servants, all that could be found’ all exemplify Macbeth’s brutality, and thus, as he ‘savagely slaughter[s]’ so many characters, the interpretation of Macbeth as a ‘mere butcher’ is a credible one.

However, as Macbeth is at first unconvinced by his murderous plans, exhibiting doubt and a guilty conscience that drives him to the brink of his sanity, it is clear that he possesses thoughts that are certainly not characteristic to a one-dimensional and unthinking ‘butcher’. Macbeth’s guilty apprehension is present before he even commits to the act of ‘treasonous malice’, as he remarks that ‘We will proceed no further in this business,’ as the very thought of murdering Duncan is ‘horrid’ to him, making his ‘seated heart knock at his ribs’. As he only commits to the act of regicide when he is goaded and ‘chastise[d]’ by his wife, it is likely that he does not have the strength of mind to execute cruel murder as a ‘butcher’ would. Macbeth’s resulting ‘brainsickly’ psychological unrest, which manifests symbolically in the form of Banquo’s ‘horrible shadow’ indicates that he is not ‘merely’ a butcher, able to commit horrific acts of murder without any sense of remorse. Though he is quickly ‘settled’ into such acts, the ‘torture of [his] mind’ demonstrates the humane and regretful contemplation of a man ‘afraid to think on what [he has] done’ and it would be altogether more feasible to interpret that whilst he is a ‘butcher,’ he is also conscience-stricken.

Furthermore, within the exposition, whilst it could be interpreted that Shakespeare does indeed depict Macbeth as a butcher from the outset, delighting in the ‘reeking wounds’ of bloody battle, due to the imagery and verse form that utilised, it is a likelier interpretation that this connotes his nobility of character, rather than the evil intentions of a butcher. Macbeth is initially and universally regarded as ‘noble’ and ‘brave,’ and Shakespeare affirms this by utilising the imagery of the ‘[eagle]’ and the ‘lion’ to in order characterise him as fully ‘deserv[ing]’ of the praise that he receives. Though this imagery, in addition to the depiction of ‘bloody execution’ and how Macbeth ‘unseam[s Macdonwald] from the nave to ‘th chops’ could be perceived as both dire and butcher-like, the verse form of this passage confirms an inherent nobility that a mere butcher could not possibly possess.

Yet, though Macbeth is arguably depicted as noble warrior within the exposition, Malcolm acts as his foil, exposing that he is, perhaps, a trained killer unfit for sovereign rule and instead, prone to uncivilised and butcher-like ‘tyranny’. Though Malcolm claims that he has ‘no relish’ of any ‘king becoming graces,’ this is simply a guise, as he is revealed to be virtuous and ‘yet unknown to woman.’ As he exhibits the ‘good truth and honour’ typical of a king and devotes himself to ‘[his] poor country’s to command’,  the ignoble traits of Macbeth, shown through the syndetic list; ’bloody…avaricious, false, deceitful… malicious, [and] smacking of every sin..’ are emphasised. As as a result, by contrast, pure Malcolm indicates that ‘black Macbeth’ is fundamentally, a sinful butcher by nature, devoid of any redeeming qualities.

Nevertheless, this interpretation can be refuted,’ not only as it is delivered from the biased perspective of Duncan’s son, but also as Macbeth was once undoubtedly a ‘worthy’ character of high status, it is a more credible view that he is not a ‘mere butcher,’ but instead, a more complex tragic hero. Macbeth eventually recognises his own brutality, and that he is ‘in blood stepped in so far…returning were as tedious to go o’er,’ and the endless succession of violence that occurs as ‘blood will have blood.’ Considering the concept that violence will beget more violence and that he is in a position that he cannot return from, then perhaps Macbeth kills as a result of his psychological entrapment – the ‘saucy doubts and fears’ regarding his position as king, that he is ‘cabined, cribbed and confined’ by indicates that he progresses to the role of butcher, consciously acting on the ‘firstlings of [his] hand,’ and suppressing his ‘human kindness’ so that he is able to commit such bloody deeds. This notion is furthered in Macbeth’s final soliloquy within the play’s denouement, which occurs after he has already committed much of his brutal action, as he reflects on the brevity of his ambition and the transience of life, speculating that ‘life’s but a walking shadow’ and the tragedy of his own plight as he comments that his is meaningless, ’signifying nothing’. Thus, even as he is left corrupted at the play’s end, Macbeth’s profound and complex introspection confirms that he is not merely a thoughtless and uncivilised butcher, as he clearly achieves an anagnorisis.

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