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The Tragedy of Macbeth (lit essay)

Posted on May 8, 2009 at 12:05 AM

Through The Tragedy of Macbeth William Shakespeare puts forth the idea that ambition is the root of all human evil. Macbeth is the story of a valiant and loyal soldier who is told by a trio of witches that he will ascend to the throne of Scotland. This enigmatic prophecy stirs within him a ruthless and brutal ambition to claim the crown for himself. His deep desire for power and advancement leads him – against his own moral conscience – to kill his venerable and beloved King Duncan. Macbeth becomes ruler and, through his own "vaulting ambition," continues to commit horrible and treacherous crimes against his friends and state to secure his own power. Towards the end of the play he descends into a kind of frantic, boastful madness. ‘Macbeth’ is indeed the tragic tale of a man destroyed by his own ambitions.


Throughout this essay I will determine why, how, and to what extent, ambition is the root of all human evil. I will explore the design of evil, looking at why [and how] Macbeth succumbs to its temptation; and parallels between Macbeth and other fallen figures. I will also investigate the myth of evil seeds sown into the nature of the human being and its relevance to Macbeth.

 

The machine of evil is fuelled by the ruthless ambition of people like Macbeth. At the beginning of the play Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who loves his King and country and is happy and content with his place in the world. Yet somehow he becomes a ferocious and tyrannical leader. Why is this? Macbeth changes from a person of strong but imperfect moral sense to a man who will stop at nothing to get and keep what he wants. By the play's end, Macbeth has lost all emotion. He cannot even react to his wife's death, except to conclude that life is only “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Macbeth has fallen into state of pure and unescapable evil.


Evil augments from the appliance of ambition, simply because ambition embodies all manner of mortal sin. Macbeth, in his desire to become King of Scotland, succumbed, unwillingly, but unquestionably, to the force, or mechanism, or mind-set of evil. No matter how true the morality of a man, unchecked ambition will always destroy him.


Macbeth’s pride is based on a real desire to be God, at least in his own circle. His lust to ascend monarchical status, and gain almost a divine power over others, represented his own egotism and vanity. Self-pride was very much the cause of Macbeth’s downfall. On the same level, his loathing envy for Duncan’s authority; his greed for the unchallenged control over others; and his immense wrath for those who sought to oppose his reign, were also strong factors of his hard heartened ambition to become King. The sin of gluttony was symbolized through Macbeth’s defiance to accept his place in the natural order or hierarchal rank; and lust – his self-destructive drive for pleasure out of proportion to its worth. The seventh sin is sloth. In ‘Macbeth’, sloth can be represented by one of two devices; either (1) as Macbeth’s will (or lack of) to suppress his wickedly ambitious urges; or (2) as Scotland’s apathetic response to the death of their King, and their idle reaction to Macbeth’s ill-gotten title and tyrannical rule. Ambition lacks the capacity to destroy if it is harnessed by the moral restraints of righteous men.


We have examined what causes evil to spring out from the ambitious desires of men – and it can be justified that ambition does exemplify a great deal of destructive force if it is used through the process of evil – but why did Macbeth commit these atrocious deeds? Did he not have a choice? Was there not another way to advance in social and hierarchal status? The question is then what converts a person to evil; what is the cause of his wicked design; and what spurs him (or her) to pursue his malevolent intentions. The answer is ambition – the desire or lust to attain power, unchecked by moral constraints. The use of evil was not one way of accomplishing his ambition, it was the way. For the fulfilment of self-desire goes hand-in-hand with the rise of evil; evil is the process.

 

The moral struggles and ruthless ambition that Macbeth experienced parallel with other fallen figures in human culture and history. The fascist Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was mercilessly ambitious in his quest to rid Germany of what he considered impure blood, more specifically Jews, homosexuals, blacks, etc. Hitler had a clear vision of what he wanted, and he had the daring to pursue it. He was totally unscrupulous and believed that the strong must win, while the weak lose. In his struggle for power, any trick, however ruthless, was justified. His strength of will, his ability to lie, cheat, and flatter helped him to win power.


The communist Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was also an ambitious man. He rose miraculously from bitter poverty to become ruler of a country that covers about a sixth of the world's land area. Stalin ruled by terror during most of his years as dictator. He allowed no one to oppose his decisions. Stalin executed or jailed most of those who had helped him rise to power because he feared they might threaten his rule.


These two leaders in history despised one another; fascism and communism were at the polar extreme ends of social government. Yet the two leaders had much in common, not only with each other, but also with the character of Macbeth. They all used ambition to achieve, what they perceived to be, righteous and worthy positions of power, and yet all three were corrupted and destroyed by the intrinsic evil hidden among ambitious virtues.


Hitler’s aspiration was to return peace and prosperity to a defeated Germany. His dream was to purify the nation of Germany; the reality was the death of millions of innocent men, women and children. Stalin rose to power in the hope that he could bring social equality and consensus to a crumbling Russia, but ended up being corrupted by his own power and inflicting great fear and suffering upon millions of his own people. And Macbeth, whose dream it was to gain the respect and wealth he so richly deserved, and bring Scotland into a new age of happiness and prosperity, ended up committing countless homicides and destroying the peace of the country he had always fought to protect.


The character of Macbeth also parallels closely with characters from film and literature.

  • Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant, from the film Scarface, exercised a great ambition for wealth and power. He rose from the bloodthirsty streets of Miami to become one of the most powerful drug lords of the 1980’s. He sought this position because he wanted respect and to be able to provide for his wife and best friend. Tony ended up becoming a drug addict and killing his friend in a drunken rage. At the very end of the film Tony is attacked by the army of a rival drug lord. All of his men abandon him and he ends up facing the army head-on with a machine gun. The similarities between Scarface and Macbeth are, at times, uncanny.
  • Suruman, a wise and magical wizard from the book The Lord of the Rings, is a very powerful and influential character throughout the story. He originally uses his power for the good of nature and society, but as his desire for control grows and grows, he turns to the character Sauron, the books villain, for the authority to command armies, and dictate industry.
  • Anakin Skywalker, from the Star Wars saga rejected the virtues of the Jedi counsel and crossed over to the ‘dark side’ to satisfy his lust for power, where he become a tyrannical ruler who commanded armies of killers to massacre millions of innocent people.
  • Napoleon, from the book Animal Farm, is a pig that helps the other animals lead a revolt against their oppressive human masters. Like Joseph Stalin, the historic figure whom he allegorically symbolizes, Napoleon begins his reign, I believe, with the intention to promote equality and prosperity, but through his ambitious nature he becomes the evil master whom he originally helped defeat. If power corrupts, then ambition destroys. 

Historically and culturally, the idea that ambition spawns evil is burnt into our way of life as a civilization. But even at the very ancestry of our species, religion, the craving for power and authority was obvious. Biblically, we are told that humanity descended from Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Adam and Eve lived in Eden, tending the garden of God. They were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of good and evil. But a serpent persuaded Eve to eat fruit from this tree. Eve gave some to Adam, who also ate the fruit. As a result, they became mortal and God exiled them from Eden. This story not only expresses how the ambition of human beings to defy authority for their own selfish intentions lead to the downfall of humanity, it also provides an eerily close account of Macbeth’s struggle. Macbeth represents Adam, and Lady Macbeth represents Eve. The couple led a happy and content life until a snake (the three witches) offers them the apple of wisdom (the allure of power). Adam is reluctant, but Eve convinces him to try the fruit (just as Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan for monarchical advancement). Through the apple Adam and Eve gain the power of wisdom, and are sent into exile by God for their betrayal. We can assume that the righteous King Duncan represents God, and the cunning Hecate symbolizes the Devil. So ambition is not just the root of immediate psychological and political evil, it is the root of all evil from the very beginning. Go back even further and what do you get? The Devil. Satan was the strongest and most powerful of all God’s angels. No one knows why Satan opposed God – whether it was the realization of his own power; or his will to dominate all life – the bible does not tell us. But we do know that Satan desired supremacy and domination so ruthlessly, and to such an extent, that he was willing to defy the Lord God himself. His ambition to rule over Heaven and Earth are [according to the bible] where evil began. It seems that religion, the very reason that morality and goodness exists in the first place, tells us that ambition spawns evil.


All human beings are inherently evil by nature; Macbeth merely let primal instinct dictate his actions. One aspect of Macbeth that is rarely analysed is the myth of human evil. The myth goes that the seeds of evil are sown into the hearts of all human beings at birth. Biblically, these seeds were planted in the ancestors of humanity, Adam and Eve, when they succumbed to temptation and took a bite from the apple of wisdom. Medically, this evil is a common gene found in the anatomic human body. And psychologically, evil is a devious state of conscience, usually personified by a little devil on your shoulder. This idea acknowledges that evil exists within all human beings, and that it is inherently present in all aspects of a person’s life. Inside every human being is apparently a sense of evil just waiting to be unleashed; this evil grows out of human ambition and sin. Some even believe that human beings are evil by nature, and that we are in a constant struggle to be good.


Macbeth used his primal instincts (aggression) and carnal judgment (murder) to achieve his goals. In the natural world the alpha male uses his brutality and strength to fulfil his ambition. This poses the question of whether it is evil to kill out of unprocessed impulse. It is morally, ethically and legally wrong, that is undisputed. But is it evil? There is no evil in nature, animals kill each other all the time and it is considered normal behaviour, evil is merely a human invention. What separates Macbeth from the characters listed above was that he felt immense guilt and anxiety, even to the point of paranoia, over his crimes. Historic figures like Hitler and Stalin certainly had no remorse for their actions; they did what they did because they believed it was right, or at least favourable, to their interests. But Macbeth was always in doubt over his murder of Duncan. Which conjures up two of the plays overlooked themes: Macbeth’s psychological conflict between natural instinct and human conscience; and the dramatic conflict between human society and natural selection. Macbeth did crave power and ascension. But whatever means he used to fulfil this ambition were still based on evil design.

 

Ambition--true ambition; the ruthless, unchecked ambition that spurred Macbeth on to seize the crown of Scotland--is undoubtedly the root of all human evil. It rises above all confines of law, both human and divine, and destroys the bars of moral conscience.


The best way I can illustrate ambition, and its destructive force over human beings, is through a metaphor: The downfall of humanity begins with the seeds of evil inherent in the minds of every human being. The roots of evil spring from the ambitious motive to defy God (immediate or universal authority). Its trunk rises out of mortal sin – pride, envy, greed, wrath, gluttony, lust, and sloth; evil thrives on these vices. The branches of power extend to bear the leaves of corruption and oppression (the side-effects of evil); and the fruits of malice, apathy, misery, anarchy, and eventually savagery (the products of evil).


Evil is a complex thing to define, far more complex than that of goodness or purity. Perhaps the true power of evil exists in the fact that no one knows exactly what it is. Is it a supernatural force (like the Holy Spirit, only the opposite)? Is it mechanism that we can readily employ to satisfy our aims? Or is it a gene that will always be within us, just waiting to be fed by sin?


The idea that ambition is the root of all evil is easily justified through Shakespeare’s tragedy, but it is also engraved in the historic, cultural, and religious facet of humanity. Ambition gathers sinful thoughts; abandons moral conscience; exposes wicked intentions; and eventually destroys the men who originally held it. In William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, Macbeth is that man.

 

Categories: ESSAYS, Literature

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