The Morals in Macbeth
Macbeth (1606) is a morality play that warns its audiences, past and present, about the destruction that follows when ambition goes beyond moral constraints. To fully understand the extent to which Macbeth is a morality play, it is essential to give consideration to the context of the time during which the playwright penned the drama. Theatre was a major social event that not only brought society together but also taught the audience, regardless of their social class, how to behave in order for society to maintain its moral order.
Shakespeare used the beliefs and current events of Renaissance England; the existence of witches, the Divine Right of Kings, a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy, and The Gowrie Conspiracy and The Gunpowder Plot regicide attempts; to warn the audience of the psychological turmoil associated with allowing oneself to be lured into immoral acts. Equally important in determining the moral integrity of Macbeth is establishing what defines a morality play.
Morality plays were a form of medieval drama that flourished in Europe during the 16th century and the early 17th century, when Macbeth was performed. Moral plays were dramatised allegories, where characters were personifications of different qualities or vices and justice was served at the end of the play. Through the use of dramatic conventions, language and structural devices and the close examination of Macbeth’s psychological deterioration in the play, Shakespeare exemplifies to Jacobean audiences the penalties of immoral crimes.
To build on this, the playwright reminds his contemporary audiences about the unpredictable nature of witches and the supernatural and the dire consequences of involving yourself with them. Furthermore, the drama highlights the negative repercussions of regicide and an illegitimate leader’s rule of a country, through Macbeth’s usurping of the Scottish crown and the resulting degeneration of the Scottish kingdom.
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth fulfils all the characteristics of morality plays from the early 17th century and its status as a notable morality play has been heightened by how Shakespeare’s highly progressive and provocative messages about life and moral values are still relevant to contemporary audiences over 500 years later and thus, the play can be considered one of the greatest morality tales ever written. Shakespeare proposes that immoral actions we commit to achieve our ambitions and desires won’t result in success and happiness but, rather, will cause disastrous consequences.
This notion occurs frequently throughout the play, with the first example arising very early in Scene 2 of Act One. The Thane of Cawdor, the ‘most disloyal traitor’ (1, 2, 59) Macdonwald, has joined the Norwegian forces fighting against Scotland. After committing this act of treason, the Thane of Cawdor is executed and his titles are given to Macbeth in recognition of his heroic efforts. The fact that Macbeth receives the traitor’s honours foreshadows that the new Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth, will follow the same fate and betray the King.
Shakespeare wanted his audiences to become more morally-informed people so by placing this scene at the beginning of the play, the Bard immediately establishes that murder and treachery, above all against the King, are morally corrupt and will only cause dire consequences for the perpetrator. After encountering the three Weird Sisters in the following scene, who prophecise that he will become King of Scotland, Macbeth resolves that ‘chance may crown me/Without my stir’ (1, 3, 157-158). However, he allows his ‘dearest love’ (1, 5, 63) to manipulate him into taking King Duncan’s life.
Moreover, Shakespeare shows his contemporary audience the eternal effects of committing murder when Macbeth speaks to an imaginary Duncan, warning him not to hear the bell for ‘it is a knell/That summons thee to heaven or to hell’ (2, 1, 71-72). Shakespeare employs the technique of apostrophe here as Macbeth addresses the absent Duncan as if he were present. During this speech, Macbeth realises that his actions will damn him and he will go to hell and the use of the rhyming couplet adds a sense of finality, accentuating that the deed is irreversible.
Shakespeare’s mentioning of the eternal damnation of Macbeth as a result of committing regicide would have heightened the Jacobean audiences’ adherence to the play’s morals. The playwright gives full access to Macbeth’s tortured mind as he descends into madness. In the scene succeeding the murder, Macbeth recalls the deed in a frenzied state and claims that he heard a voice say, ‘Sleep no more! /Macbeth does murder sleep’ (2, 2, 43-44). The word ‘sleep’ is then mentioned six more times in the space of eight lines as Shakespeare stresses that Macbeth is no longer innocent and so cannot sleep.
His dispatching of Duncan has literally murdered any chance of easy sleep for Macbeth, due to the immense guilt that he will suffer. Even after Macbeth is crowned as King, Lady Macbeth admits that ‘Nought’s had, all’s spent,/Where our desire is got without content. ’ Lady Macbeth and her husband have exhausted all their resources and achieved everything they wanted, but still are not satisfied. Shakespeare uses this rhyming couplet to underscore that no personal peace or contentment can be achieved by killing another.
Lady Macbeth then goes as far as to say that ‘’Tis safer to be that which we destroy/Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy’ (3, 2, 8-9). In other words, it’s better to be dead than tormented by guilt because you have killed someone. Macbeth enters and expresses the full extent of his anxious and guilty conscience when he confesses that, ‘O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! ’ (3, 4, 42). This torturous metaphor highlights the distress that seems to be burrowing further and further into the depths of Macbeth’s mind.
The audience cannot help but empathise with Macbeth and his struggle with his issues of conscience, whilst still recognising that he is governed by some semblance of right and wrong, despite the poor choices he has made. Equally important in demonstrating the deterioration associated with committing immoral deeds is the rapid demise of Lady Macbeth following Duncan’s death. After Duncan’s assassination, Lady Macbeth is the one who takes control and attempts to calm Macbeth with her misguided philosophy that ‘A little water clears us of this deed. How easy is it then!
However, this lack of remorse soon fades and as Macbeth isolates himself with his newly attained Kingship, Lady Macbeth becomes overrun with guilt. A doctor is summoned by Lady Macbeth’s attendant to observe her nightly ritual and he describes her sleep-walking as ‘A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the/benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching! ’ (5, 1, 8-9), highlighting the unnaturalness of Lady Macbeth’s actions. She then tries to remove imaginary blood from her hands, evidence of her role in Duncan’s death.
The doctor concludes that ‘Unnatural deeds/Do breed unnatural troubles’ (5, 1, 63-64). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s appalling immoral crimes can be seen as unnatural deeds which bring about numerous disastrous consequences, both for them and in the natural world. Through the repetition of the word ‘unnatural,’ the playwright directly reinforces to audiences, then and now, the immorality of Duncan’s assassination and murder as a whole and the inherent suffering associated with committing immoral deeds.
In the end, suicide seems like the only option for Lady Macbeth to escape the trap she has caused for herself through her deplorable actions. The inclusion of a main female character by Shakespeare is very effective as it adds an element of universality to the play’s morals; without the downfall of an ambitious female character, the messages of the drama, would not, arguably, be as applicable to female audience members. The playwright uses the decline of Macbeth and his wife, two of the central characters in the play, following their regicide to repeatedly warn his contemporary and future audiences about the dangers of committing immoral deeds and their devastating consequences.
To build on the idea that unnatural deeds breed unnatural troubles, Shakespeare presents witchcraft and the supernatural as dangerous forces and highlights that involving yourself with them will only lead to your downfall. The role of the witches in Macbeth’s decline should not be underestimated. Although the Weyward Sisters do not directly advise Macbeth to commit regicide, they tempt him into the deed with their prophecies, which promise that he ‘shalt be King hereafter! ’ (1, 3, 53). By planting this seed in Macbeth’s mind, the Weird Sisters effectively guide him onto the path to his own destruction.
Shakespeare relates witchcraft to the devil, as many Jacobean people believed that the devil followed this same pattern of temptation, and thus accentuates the extent of their evil intentions. The plotting of Macbeth’s downfall by the supernatural forces is stressed in Scene 5 of Act Three when Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, reprimands the three witches for approaching Macbeth without her. Hecate plans to destroy Macbeth by filling him with over confidence and using apparitions to ‘draw him onto his confusion’ (3, 5, 29). Just two scenes later, Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters, who are chanting the line, ‘Double, double toil and trouble.
Shakespeare stresses the witches’ intent: to cause trouble for all the mortals around them. The Wayward Sisters succeed in confusing Macbeth in their equivocations; to ‘Beware the Thane of Fife’ (4, 1, 79) but then that ‘none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth’ (4, 1, 88-89) and ‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him’ (4, 1, 101-103). These half-truths that seemingly promise success for Macbeth cause him to become arrogant and complacent in his role as King, which essentially leads to his downfall.
Throughout the play, it is evident that Macbeth’s good conscience fights a losing battle against the evil spirits for control of his soul, one of the characteristics of 17th century morality plays. Macbeth becomes so confused about what is moral and immoral that he succumbs to the pressures of his wife and his own ambition and Shakespeare suggests that this moral confusion stems from the witches’ toxic influence, emphasising the unnatural consequences associated with involving yourself in witchcraft and the supernatural.
In addition, Shakespeare dramatises the complex nature of Kingship through the disparities between the rule of King Duncan and Macbeth to reinforce that the wellbeing of a nation is dependent on the moral compass of its leader. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, it was believed that the health of a country depended on the goodness and moral legitimacy of its leader: political order led to natural order. King Duncan is always referred to as a great King: he is generous, benevolent and humble and as a result, Scotland flourishes under his rule.
Shakespeare highlights Duncan’s generosity and good nature when he promises to all his ‘Sons, kinsmen, thanes’ (1, 4, 42) that ‘signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine/On all deservers’ (1, 4, 48-49). Macbeth is already plotting to overthrow the King at this point and only a few lines later, he speaks to himself the telling words, ‘Stars! Hide your fires! /Let not light see my black and deep desires’ (1, 4, 58-59).
On the literal level, Shakespeare juxtaposes the good-hearted personality and morals of Duncan with the ruthlessness of Macbeth and metaphorically, the playwright associates King Duncan with light, goodness and above all, transparency in his rule. Macbeth, in contrast, craves darkness to hide his sinister thoughts and actions, foreshadowing his corrupt reign. Shakespeare’s characterisation of Duncan as being well-respected by his people and treating all of his royal subjects so well heightens the enormity and tragedy of his murder.
Shakespeare uses Duncan’s death and the resulting chaos to propose the occurrences and damage to the order of the English royal Kingdom that would occur if King James I was killed, who was widely considered a great King. On the other hand, Macbeth is so ruthless and violent in his role as King of Scotland that by the end, ‘Those he commands move only in command,/Nothing in love’ (5, 2, 22-23). Shakespeare uses the idea of Karma, that all of your actions will have equal repercussions, to highlight that leaders who are ruthless and treat their people and country badly will suffer the terrible consequence of being hated and eventually betrayed.
Macbeth is constantly referred to as a tyrant and his death is not seen as unnatural but is celebrated. At the end of the play, after Macduff slays Macbeth, ‘The usurper’s cursed head’ (5, 8, 66) is removed and held high in triumph. This notion that Macbeth is cursed relates back to his thoughts being greatly influenced by the witches and their role in his downfall. At the conclusion of the play, the audience sees the torment and emptiness of Macbeth’s life and turns with relief to the justice and order re-established by Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne.
The differences in the reign of Duncan and Macbeth and the effects both rulers have on the political and natural world stress the importance of moral leadership for a nation and society to thrive. In conclusion, Macbeth is to a great extent a morality tale, with Macbeth allegorically representing the vice of ambitious greed, a constant fight between good and evil and justice being served at the play’s conclusion with the rightful heir, Malcolm, being restored to the Scottish Kingdom.
Furthermore, Macbeth’s classification as a noteworthy morality drama has been intensified by how its timeless and universal lessons about the importance of being a loyal and moral citizen are still valid in the 21st century. Shakespeare underscores for his audiences that immoral crimes will always have negative repercussions, supernatural forces are dangerous and cannot be trusted and the political and social wellbeing of a country relies on the morality of its leader.
I believe that Macbeth is one of the best morality plays ever written, which is verified by how relevant its messages still are today. We continue to see modern leadership being morally corrupted by excessive hunger for power; business men and woman, politicians, religious leaders and sports people. Macbeth, the morality play, continues to challenge its audiences to consider whether our morality, both personally and as a whole society, has evolved since Shakespeare penned the drama five centuries ago.