Macbeth: How Murder Affects the Soul Essay
Macbeth is primarily about murder and the way in which murder affects the soul. The relationship between Macbeth and his wife is irrevocably damaged by the murder that they commit in order to promote his ambition. The motivations of the murders that they commit are because of his ambition, but in expressing that ambition he ruins his life through his success of that expression. Macbeth has no real concept of himself and therefore his relationship with his wife is torn and disconnected. Macbeth dissolves into his deeds, leaving his own sense of identity behind and reacting to his world without the guidance of self-awareness. While the interpersonal relationship between Macbeth and his wife was once on a level of intimacy that created a deep ‘knowing’ of each other, their deeds create a gulf over which they can non longer connect. They lose each other in the wake of their crimes. Macbeth is a tale of dark deeds met out to feed an ambition that cannot be fully fulfilled because of those dark deeds. The play Macbeth is a discussion about the effects of immoral behavior on the hearts and minds of those who would commit such dark deeds in order to advance an agenda of ambition and selfish intent.
The concept of murder and its aftermath is heavily explored within Macbeth. According to a discussion by Freud, “Together they exhaust the possibilities of reaction to the crime, like two disunited parts of a single psychical individuality and it may be that they are both copied from a single prototype” (Garber 91). Freud insinuated that they were the split identity of one character, each half exhibiting aspects of their reaction to the act of murder. The motives of the behaviors that are exhibited by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth create a running commentary on the concept of those who are ‘wrecked by success’ as Freud termed them (Garber 90). Because they saw a great deal of this success, they pushed their ambitions to a place that backlashed against them, creating great emotional turmoil and guilt, thus ruining the achievements they had gained. The centrally important element of the play for the audience is a relationship with “our moral involvement with Macbeth’s self-disgust” (Vickers 29). In connecting to the guilt and torn soul that has become Macbeth, and as an extension has become Lady Macbeth, the discourse between the play and the audience is defined by the sense of morality that is discussed.
The development of the supernatural element within Macbeth provides a key to the discussion of morality through the element of fate as it is handed down in response to what Macbeth has done. There has been some commentary on the lack of humanity that is displayed by Macbeth, but within the play, there has been no real opportunity for the real Macbeth to appear. He has been influenced by the supernatural from the first scene, his wife manipulating him until his own identity has been shrouded with that of the deeds he has come to commit. Therefore, through the influence of his fate as exampled by the supernatural, Macbeth has lost his sense of self and identity, his manhood usurped by the influence of his wife, and his own sense of being stretched and exaggerated until he has no truth of himself within his actions and reactions. He is no longer in control because he has allowed the supernatural elements to dictate his fate rather than making choices on his own accord. He determines that his fate is written and that he is a passenger now on the wreck of his life.
The use of the supernatural by Macbeth is reflective of the doubts that were being experienced during the time of the Reformation. That Macbeth called on the help of the three sisters suggests that the faith in the Christian church to support his desires was no longer present. According to Holland, Macbeth reveals a philosophical problem of the time period as the belief in the Catholic Church was in question, thus creating a turn towards more supernatural forces in order to effect life. Holland states that “In Macbeth, the witches stimulate hunger for more…than mortal knowledge”(31). Through the use of supernatural forces to create an effect upon the lives of themselves, they invite those forces to write their fate, to be a part of their future, and thus help in their destruction. The instigation of Lady Macbeth’s plots is in believing the prophecy that Macbeth would be king, thus putting into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Dutton and Howard, “The audience is placed in a situation where they must believe the witches’ prophesies as a condition of engaging with the narrative” (396). However, since the knowledge that the witches know is previously revealed to the audience, the impact of their mysticism is diminished. The tension between believing in the supernatural and trusting that is true is developed through these conflicting elements.
The relationship between Macbeth and his wife is one that has an established intimacy that requires a development of respect from the audience that comes with the revelation of that intimacy. The two know each other well, thus whatever conclusions that the audience comes to in regard to the nature of either character is subject to the interpretations that Macbeth and his wife make of each other. It is the knowledge of her husband that allows Lady Macbeth the opportunity to manipulate him towards their mutual ambitions. According to Hudson’s notes on Macbeth, “There is in it a ring of absolute confidence in her knowledge of him and her influence over him; she knows his weaknesses and plays on them effectively” (111). However, her knowledge of him will be the ruin of their relationship as she goes farther than Macbeth is able to cope. Hudson goes on to say that “she totally miscalculates the effect which acted crime will have on Macbeth’s temperament, and in the blindness of her great love for him and the pride of her imperious will she raises forces which transport him ultimately not only beyond her influence but out of her very life” (111).
From a contemporary point of view, Macbeth is drenched in a belief system that is not supported by reason. While the psychological aspects of Macbeth can be related to the contemporary world just as Freud has related them, the ways in which the supernatural is used as a conduit to the future, both in requesting action and in promoting prophesy, provides a more specific reference to the philosophical struggles during the Reformation. While a contemporary audience can enjoy the supernatural elements, they do not have the same impact as they did during the time the play was written. Even as there is the presence of physicians within the play, they serve to give more power to the supernatural world than to the world of science as they determine that Lady Macbeth’s malady is beyond their scope and illness of “moral affliction”(Moschovakis 183).
Macbeth is a drama that has the overtones of the horror genre. As in the novel Frankenstein, the evil is within the human element, rather than the supernatural one. The ambitions and greed that drive the foul deeds that are committed are supported by the belief in supernatural elements. As Lady Macbeth believes the prophesy that her husband will be king, she is inspired to act where she may not have acted before this knowledge. The impact of the belief in the supernatural, therefore, is punishable thus supporting the philosophical conflict of the time. The impact of believing in dark forces and in acting on the information that is gained by these associations is the loss of a moral compass from which the identity and the sense of self are maintained. As the world around Macbeth and his wife becomes formed by their actions, they begin to see that they have lost control, their own forces made impotent by allowing powers outside themselves to hold sway over their actions.
Dutton, Richard, and Jean Elizabeth Howard. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: 1. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. Print.
Garber, Marjorie B. Shakespeare, and Modern Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008. Print.
Holland, Peter. Macbeth and Its Afterlife. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004. Print.
Schulze, Rainer. Making Meaningful Choices in English: On Dimensions, Perspectives, Methodology, and Evidence. Tubingen: Narr, 1998. Print.
Hudson, Henry N., and William Shakespeare. The tragedy of Macbeth. Boston: Ginn and Co, 1904. Print.
Moschovakis, Nicholas R. Macbeth: New Critical Essays. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press, 2008. Print.
Vickers, Brian. William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage. 1774-1801. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press, 1996. Print.