The Danger of Knowledge
In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein it can be said that both protagonists come to an unfortunate end. What leads to Macbeth and Frankenstein’s premature demise? Victor Frankenstein and Macbeth both demonstrate that acquisition of knowledge is dangerous and to seek it for the purpose of power leads to destruction of life. Macbeth’s and Frankenstein’s knowledge leads to overwhelming ambition, to immoral decisions and the destruction of their reality.
Firstly knowledge leads to overpowering ambition. In the first act Macbeth is well-liked, King Duncan gloats: “He is full so valiant / and is a peerless kinsman” (1. 4. 56-60) and in doing so shows that Macbeth is regarded as an honest and valiant warrior. By the end of the first act Macbeth’s ambition becomes a problem. The Witches share the knowledge that Macbeth “shalt be king hereafter! ” (1. 3. 52). For Macbeth the knowledge that he is to be king intrigues him but he thinks he has to kill the king to become the king.
Macbeth weighs his options: “Duncan…hath been / so clear in his great office, that his virtues / will plead like angels… I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’ other. ” (1. 7. 16-23). Macbeth thinks King Duncan is a good man and the only thing that motivates Macbeth to kill Duncan is ambition fueled by acquired knowledge. Contrastingly Frankenstein gains his knowledge not through witchcraft but books and facts while studying science at the University of Ingolstadt.
Frankenstein says: “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the of our race” (Shelly 12) which shows that he thinks his knowledge is worth more than the lives of others. Furthermore Frankenstein seeks the power to conquer nature and benefit humanity. Frankenstein feels that with his knowledge of science he has ultimate power which leads him to over extend his ambition. Secondly knowledge blinds their moral compasses. The witches say to Banquo that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo! ”(1. 3. 58-59) the witches state that even though Macbeth will be king Banquo’s sons will be kings following Macbeth’s reign. Before the prophecy was made it is perceivable that Macbeth would have given his life for Banquo in combat but the knowledge of his rein encourages Macbeth to over throw Banquo. If Macbeth does not react to the Witches information then it is possible that Macbeth gives Banquo’s sons the throne by free will. Nowhere in the text does it state that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are capable of reproduction.
Macbeth does not think of these scenarios and instead reacts to this information by killing his dear friend Banquo and attempting to kill Banquo’s son. Similarly Frankenstein gains the knowledge necessary to reanimate life, but acts without thinking of the consequences. Once Frankenstein finishes creating his monster he says: “No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch” (Shelly 43) after looking at the monster Frankenstein runs away in horror.
In the following months Frankenstein immorally does not attempt to contact the monster and leaves him alone in the world without any guidance. The wretch then goes on to kill innocent people. If Frankenstein had raised the monster it is possible that the monster would have been peaceful and useful to society, but Frankenstein only thinks about himself and brings something into the world he did not understand. Subsequently, Frankenstein’s immoral decisions lead to an infuriated Wretch that kills Frankenstein’s family and friends as revenge for abandoning him.
Lastly both characters state that knowledge has led to their misfortune. By the fifth act Macbeth has killed countless people and his actions have led to the death of his wife Lady Macbeth. During the final scene before his own death he proclaims “My soul is too much charged / And be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense, / That keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope” (5. 8. 19-23). Macbeth realises that the knowledge the witches have given him has led to all of his recent misery.
Similarly Frankenstein says: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelly 38). Frankenstein explicitly states that the acquirement of knowledge is perilous. He warns Robert Walton that seeking answers will only bring misery and a man is happiest in his own town appose to traveling the world in search of glory and power.
Also implied is that he has tried to become greater that nature meaning that he was overextending himself for power. Frankenstein warns even further: “I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes…You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (Shelly 14) Frankenstein speaks that he has suffered because of his knowledge and ambition.
Frankenstein hopes Walton’s desires do not lead to his downfall as they have for himself. In closing even though the knowledge that Macbeth and Frankenstein acquires is very different the result is the same, death and destruction. Macbeth is told by the witches that he will be king and the knowledge of his reign leads Macbeth to kill King Duncan, his friend Banquo and countless other people resulting in his own death. Frankenstein’s knowledge leads him to create a monster that kills his family, his friends and himself.
“Peace, peace! Learn my miseries and do not seek to increase your own. ” (Shelly 186) The difference between the two men is that Frankenstein tries to end the cycle of destruction, by sharing the knowledge of his experiences with Robert Walton. Contrastingly Macbeth does nothing to prevent future chaos furthering the cycle of destruction. Ultimately these characters show us that learning knowledge in its self can be useful but to acquire it for the purpose power leads to ruin.