Macbeth's Downfall: A Product of Manipulation

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"Macbeth", by William Shakespeare, is the story of one man’s internal moral battles as he strives to become King of Scotland in the 1600’s. He is consumed with a continuous struggle between what is right or wrong. Other characters begin to negatively influence Macbeth, including his wife; and, as a result of their encouragement, he gains confidence in his decisions. A transformation occurs within Macbeth as he falls prey to manipulation, causing him to lose his values and be unduly influenced by others into making rash judgments that eventually lead to his demise.

Initially, prior to killing Duncan, Macbeth is kind, valiant, and loving. Others know him as a hero and a courageous, patriotic soldier. Duncan relates about him, “For brave Macbeth, well he deserves the name. Disdaining fortune with his brandish steel which smoked with bloody execution/Like valor’s minion carved out his passage.”(I, ii, 16-19). His wife knows him to be noble and honest, evidenced when she tells him, “Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’milk of human kindness.”

(I, v, 15). He also deeply loves his wife, as they are very close at this point in time, reflected when he addresses Lady Macbeth, “My dearest partner of greatness.” (I, v, 2). His attitude and ideals begin to change, though, when he hears the witches’ prophecies.

Once Macbeth learns that he has an opportunity to become king, he questions his morals. The third witch tells him, “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.” (I, iii, 33-54). This gives him confidence because he believes that the prophecies come true. He begins to contemplate whether or not he should kill King Duncan, so that he can become king sooner. At first, he does not want to follow through with his plan. He wrestles with the idea when he says, “Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself?” (I, vii, 14-16). Lady Macbeth, however, at the thought of becoming queen, urges him to commit the murder when she asks him, “And I live a coward in thine own esteem, letting ‘I dare not wait upon’ I would, like the poor cat I th’adage?” (I, vii, 43-46). She influences him enough that he decides to commit the murder.

After Macbeth kills Duncan, he changes dramatically. He falls into a depression and has nightmares about the murder, recalling that, “Me thought I heard a voice cry/sleep no more … in life’s feast.” (II, ii, 47-52). He also begins to become paranoid. In the beginning, Banquo is a close friend of Macbeth’s, but after the murder, Macbeth believes that Banquo is suspicious of him and figures that Banquo’s “wisdom that doth guide his valour/To act in safety” (II, ii, 6-8) will make him turn in Macbeth. This leads Macbeth to decide to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, who, according to the witches, will eventually become king. Macbeth then acts on impulse and murders Banquo. Before killing Duncan, he contemplates the deed for a long while; whereas, in his murder of Banquo, he makes the decision rashly, without giving it any real thought. He also shows no remorse when he gloats, “To be thus is nothing; … and champion me to the utterance! /Who’s there?” (III, i, 52-76). The ghost of Banquo appears in front of Macbeth, which signifies Macbeth’s partial loss of sanity.

Macbeth completely loses his morals and proper judgment when making important decisions once he murders Banquo. People begin to disrespect him. Macduff’s absence from Macbeth’s party offends him, and he decides he must kill Macduff’s family as retribution for the slight. This further proves his loss of perspective and complete break with reality, as he remarks, “The flightly purpose never is o’ertook/Unless with deed go with it.” (IV, I, 159-160). He is so overcome with confidence that it makes him believe he can do anything he wants without consequence. This unfounded self-assurance stems, in large part, from the witches’ prophecies and actually leaves him vulnerable.

The apparitions also add to his belief that he is invincible. They say, “Be bloody, bold, and resolute/Laugh to scorn the power of man, for none born of woman shall harm Macbeth.” (IV, I, 78-81). This statement leads him to believe that no man could kill him; he does not know, however, that Macduff was born by cesarean-section, so is an exception and not considered to be “born of woman.” The third apparition tells him, “Be lion-mettled, proud and take no care of who chafes, who frets, or where conspires are: Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” (IV, I, 89-94). Macbeth figures that this means he should be brave, for he does not believe that a forest could walk up to his door. Again, the apparitions trick him; Macduff and his army use branches and bushes as camouflage as they attack Macbeth’s castle and eventually kill him. Macbeth is too easily influenced, and this weakness leads to his downfall.

Macbeth starts out as a noble, courageous man of good will, but his ambition and the selfish desires of his wife bring about drastic changes in his character. He inadvertently allows himself to be grossly manipulated by Lady Macbeth and others to live up to their expectations and because he is blinded by his opportunity to become king. His manipulators give him confidence, which becomes hubris, leading to his inevitable death.