"Macbeth" is Shakespeare's shortest, brutal and one of his most poignant of tragedies. It illustrates the life if Macbeth- a once loyal and noble subject to King Duncan of Scotland, during a period of rapid change when Macbeth disregards his moral values to uphold his own flaws and vices. This journey of dire change begins with Macbeth being approached by three witches, is prompted by the murder of Duncan, and ends with Macbeths own tragic downfall. Shakespeare left us to ponder over what really did cause 'Macbeth' to end the way it did. Was it the curiosity provoked invoked by the witches in the very beginning of the play? Was it the ever-present but dormant nature of 'vaulting ambition' suddenly awakened in Macbeth? Was it his sweet nature 'too full o' the milk of human kindness' [I: -V] and humble obedience that his wife, Lady Macbeth exploited to the greatest extent? Or was it an invisible force that etches the path of our future long before we are born and will ultimately lead us to our final resting place? To arrive at a proper conclusion of what really caused Macbeth's downfall an analysis of the story and an examination of the points that lead to this conclusion is necessary.
During this period of time when 'Macbeth' was written, there was an accepted belief of a higher force that controlled and guides us through our lives. This force was widely renowned as fate. Fate is frequently mentioned in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth refers to Macbeth's ascension to the crown as inevitable and predestined by fate. "All that impedes thee from the golden round, which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem to have thee crowned withal," [I: - V] Another example of fate being mentioned is when Hecate is scolding the three witches and says to them that Macbeth is trying to avoid his own fate "Shall draw him onto his confusion. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear his hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear." [III: - V] The alternative version of fate is the wheel of fortune. As a fraction of a wheel shifts from a low to a high position so does a man's life. Hence a man enjoying particularly good fortune is likely to expect some sudden misfortune. This can be applied to Macbeth, 'He hath honored me of late; and I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people.'[I: - VII] So it can be said that perhaps Macbeth's own wheel of fortune had turned to the lower position but became fatal when Macbeth tampered with the natural order of things such as murdering God's selected ambassador on earth therefore destroying the perfect order of the world. "A Falcon towering in her pride of place was by a mousing owl hawked at and killedÃ¢ÂÂ¦ And Duncan's horses- a thing most strange and certainÃ¢ÂÂ¦Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, Contending 'gainst obedience as they would Make war with mankind. 'Tis said they ate each other." [II: - IV] Another supernatural or abstract influence in 'Macbeth' was the witches who act as instruments of evil that foretell Macbeth's fate. Witches were often associated with death and evil deeds of the underworld. They were believed to be supernatural beings who had sold their souls to Satan himself. They inflicted havoc and death wherever they traveled. "Fair is foul and foul is fair" [I: - I] the witches signify chaos and disruption of the natural world. When the witches are approached by Macbeth and Banquo they immediately arouse Macbeth's interest by greeting him "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis...Thane of CawdorÃ¢ÂÂ¦ that shalt be king hereafter." [I: - III] Macbeth is startled and now curious to learn more "Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more." [I: - III] Macbeth from this very moment undergoes a transformation where the previously controlled and latent ambition was now unleashed to manipulative degree. The only thought on his mind from this moment is how he can claim his place as King. Banquo however reacts differently to the witches' prophecy and perceives that they are strange and destructive creatures. "Besides the Thane of Cawdor. But 'tis strange and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of Darkness tell us truths; Win us with honest trifles, to betray's in deepest consequence." [I: - III] In these few words Banquo summarizes the sinister intentions of the three witches.
Macbeth's life seems doomed when Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft rebukes the three witches for not discussing their dealings with here. "How did you dare to trade and traffic with Macbeth in riddles and affairs of death; And I, the mistress of your charms, The close contriver of all harms, Was never called to bear my part, or show the glory of our art." [III: - V] Hecate declares herself to be the furtive schemer behind all deeds of harm which further ensures Macbeth's doom. Moreover she orders them to deceive Macbeth by presenting his future in ambiguous terms so he will continue to think that he is infallible but in truth his end is drawing near. "And that distilled by magic sleights, shall raise such artificial sprites, as, by the strength of their illusion, shall draw him onto his confusion. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear his hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear. And you all know, security is mortals' chiefest enemy." [III: - V] The witches final appearance is when Macbeth approaches them the second time, and they present to him four apparitions, Macbeth leaves feeling he is omnipotent and unable to be harmed for "none of woman born, shall harm Macbeth." [IV: - I] This second meeting between the witches' and Macbeth is really the final step in the supernatural factors contributing to Macbeth's downfall for he can do what he pleases; kill who he wants without consequences, for he thinks himself invincible.
Lady Macbeth, Macbeth's wife also plays a large role in Macbeth's actions and downfall. After Macbeth meets with the witches for the first time, he writes to his wife explaining these unusual happenings and how their first prophecy of Thane of Cawdor, indeed came true. It immediately occurs to Lady Macbeth, a born schemer and Macbeth's "dearest partner in greatness" [I: - V], that Macbeth's sweet nature may be an obstacle to their path to the throne "Yet I do fear thy nature: It is too full o' the milk of human-kindness." [I: - V] She realizes they ought "To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great" [I: - V] but also that Macbeth" Art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it" [I: - V]. So she decides that the only way to convince Macbeth to commit this wrong is to "pour my spirits in thine ear, and chastise with the valour of my tongue." [I: - V] When Macbeth returns home, he begins to have second thoughts on the planned murder of Duncan. "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, Not bear the knife myself." [I: - VII]He continues contemplating on the gentleness and virtues of Duncan and finally when Lady Macbeth confronts him he decides "We will proceed no further in this business." [I: - VII] But is Lady Macbeth who begins insulting him, "And Live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would'," [I: - VII] slighting him on his weak ambition and even doubting his love for her "From this time, such I account they love." [I: - VII] She continues abusing him, mocking his manhood "When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man." [I: - VII] until Macbeth relents "I am settled; and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat. Away, and mock the time with fairest show: False face must hide what the false heart doth know." [I: - VII] Despite Lady Macbeth being portrayed for a vast amount of the play as an evil heartless wretch "Fill me, from the crown to the toe, top- full of direst cruelty" [I: - V] she continues to remain one of the most tragic figures in this play for, after Duncan's death, instead of enjoying the greatness of the throne, she is driven insane by her own guilt and remorse until her only form of escape from insanity is suicide. She pays the just price for instigating Macbeth to this feat of great iniquity. Despite the enormous pressures and temptations Macbeth received from Lady Macbeth and the witches, that compelled him to commit these murders, Shakespeare added yet another factor. In the Elizabethan era there was a belief that the possession of reason and understanding placed man above all creatures and just below the angels- who are supernatural beings. Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries used this belief as a discreet theme in their works. By the end of this play, the audience finds themselves asking just how much of this tragedy was caused by the will and error of Macbeth. What if Macbeth, like Banquo, had never consented to the evil desires that possessed him when the witches first approached him "Present fears are less than horrible imaginings. My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical" [I: - III]? He would have still, eventually, claimed the crown, minus the murders and his own death. What if Macbeth remained the loyal and obedient subject to the King? What if Macbeth had listened to his initial thoughts before the murder of Duncan? What if he had put aside his soft nature, as he did with the murders he ordered, and stood up to his wife and resist her orders and insults to murder Duncan? What if he had never let ambition and the instigations provoked by the witches control his life? The real tragedy lies in the fact that Macbeth in the beginning of the play is the ultimate aspiration of a man- honest, virtuous, loyal and valiant; but by the end is reduced to the nightmare of any being, a monster, battered by his own ambition and actions, a heartless tyrant that ruined the lives of many. If any of these events or changes had not taken place, the entire course of the play would have been altered. Hence there is no supreme factor to what caused the tragic ending of 'Macbeth'.
Shakespeare left us with an open conclusion of what really did cause Macbeth's catastrophic downfall. It can be clearly seen that there is no dominant factor which lead to this outcome, it was instead, a series of events which occurred the way they did, due to the deeds performed by the maturing and static characters and also 'The wheel of fortune' which turns events abruptly but is triggered by human actions and faults which many people believe to be fate. All these constituents worked together, hand-in-hand to create 'Macbeth' - a masterpiece of human feeling and thought, that in detail examines human flaws and vices, primarily uncontrolled ambitions, which are capable of corrupting even the strongest and most gallant of men.