William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth tells the story of a Scottish general, Macbeth, who has seen victory in battle just as he meets with three witches up on the moors. These witches tell him he will first become Thane of Cawdor and then that he will become King of Scotland, both positions already taken. However, hearing the news, Macbeth’s wife is unwilling to allow time to lay the course and convinces Macbeth to murder the present king that very evening. This, of course, leads to increasing levels of violence as Macbeth attempts to retain control of the crown and secure his position. As this progression unfolds, it can be seen that Macbeth must contend with various commitments – his commitment to his king, his commitment to his wife, and his commitment to evil. Although the witches are often blamed for his downfall, Macbeth is responsible for his own downfall as he fails to properly balance his various commitments.
As the play opens, Macbeth’s commitment to King Duncan is revealed as this is his employer and his lord. The first two acts don’t even see Macbeth as he is busy on the battlefield, attempting to defend Duncan’s kingdom from the forces of Macdonwald, a man from the ‘Western Isles.’ Macbeth’s loyalty is shown in the fierceness of the battle being fought as it is reported by the wounded captain in Act I, Scene ii. He tells the king the battle was “As two spent swimmers that do cling together / And choke their art” (I, ii, 8-9), indicating that the two sides were equally matched and Fortune was favoring Macdonwald. “But all’s too weak / For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name) / Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel … unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops” (I, ii, 15-17, 22). In addition to fighting for his king, Macbeth is quickly and well rewarded for his efforts as King Duncan quickly makes him the new Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth himself acknowledges his debt to Duncan as he considers the idea of assassination: “He’s here in double trust: / First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, / Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, / Who should against his murderer shut the door” (I, vii, 12-15). Beyond this, he also knows that Duncan has been a good and fair king and killing him is unjustified.
Of course, his recent elevation to Cawdor reinforces the information Macbeth has been given on the moors by the witches, which introduces another, stronger commitment, which is to his own personal interests, such as his wife and the betterment of his position. His commitment to his wife is illustrated as he addresses her in his letter, “This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness” (I, v). This commitment plays a large role in his actions, decisions and mental state in ensuing scenes. Although at first Macbeth seems to waver on whether he should force the hand of fate or allow things to happen in due course, Lady Macbeth urges him to go forward with their scheme by appealing to the commitment promised between them as a part of their marriage vows. When Macbeth decides for honor’s sake that he will not kill Duncan this night, it is Lady Macbeth who spurs him forward with the plan anyway, asking if all his resolve was just a show and promising “From this time / Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valor / As thou art in desire?” (I, vii, 38-41). In making this speech, Lady Macbeth not only calls into question the strength of Macbeth’s commitment to her, but also his commitment to himself and his manhood, something that was even more important to the individual then than it is today.
Macbeth’s commitment to evil, though, is a slowly developing process that only begins with his letter to his wife. Although he knows he has no reason to move against his king other than “vaunting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” (I, vii, 25-27), his commitment to his wife and his greed proves overpowering, forcing him to the act. This single evil action thus commits him to further evil acts. When Macbeth willingly participates in murder, this quickly escalates to massacres of perceived enemies and the propagation of lies and deceits as a means of maintaining the perception others have of him. His own deceit of Duncan forces him to consider the possible schemes of Banquo, thus leading him to order murder once again. To avenge himself on Macduff for having escaped him, Macbeth orders the massacre of Macduff’s family, and the evil flows on. Macbeth’s insecurities lead him to seek additional advice from the witches, thus intentionally seeking out evil rather than waiting for it to come to him, eventually losing his heath and sanity in the process.
Although the women of the play are often blamed for Macbeth’s downfall – the witches through their prophesies and his wife through her encouragement – it is ultimately Macbeth who makes the final decisions as to what action should be taken. By exploring the theme of commitment that runs through Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one can begin to trace how Shakespeare judged his fellow man. Macbeth loses his honor, his integrity and his life as a result of his placing devotion to self and family at the expense of the crown and the people. That he is supported in this by his wife is perhaps not surprising, but demonstrates the failure of both to adhere to the Old Codes of honor and hospitality even as it undeniably goes against Christian morality. In the end, Macbeth illustrates the importance of placing commitments carefully and in balancing them between house and state or self and other.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969: 1107-1135.