Men must endure Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripness is all’ (King Lear.) Discuss how two of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes act and react within the interplay of choice and destiny.
Tragic Heroes to be Discussed:
Lear, King of Britain, From King Lear, 1606. Arden/ Routledge Edition.
Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, From Macbeth, 1623. Oxford Edition.
In considering the nature of choice and destiny in Shakespeare’s King Lear’ (1606,) and Macbeth’ (1623,) it is perhaps worth considering the patronage under which the plays were written and produced.
James, King of Scotland had been on the English throne since the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, and it it obvious that Macbeth’ is a kind of royal tribute to Shakespeare’s patron. King Lear’ is also an interestingly pan-British play, concerning the British King Leir, son of Bladud, from Welsh proto-history. The emphasis on Lear’s fatal division of Britain may complement the ascention of James; the unity of mainland Britain under a single monarch is one of the moral arguaments of King Lear, and an obvious affirmation of James’ ascendancy.
Beneath the royal propoganda, however, both plays constitute a sound appraisal of political and social order. One of the most evident feature of King Lear,’ is Shakespeares’ preocupation with truth and its discernment by authority. Lear is a man deceived by his own pride, and by the outward appearance of others, he struggles to discover the inner self of his daughters and his own identity. To maintain order, morality must triumph over amoral forces, but this can only be achieved through the admission in the king that human nature breeds destruction. Lear fails to keep society’s innate destructive forces in check, and his division prompts the degeneration of social and moral order. The ensuring conflict between the forces of order and amorality is an essential illustration of the active nature of morality, as opposed to the passive amorality of Lear, who violates social and moral institutions though his actions.
In Macbeth, the forces of amorality conspire to lure the hero over to amorality and ambition. Macbeth is presented with the clear choice on wheather to kill for a throne, his descision is ruthless, but contemplative and not without doubt. Macbeth illustrates the capacity of individuals to succumb to less noble instincts in society; his subsequent plunge into degeneration is the practical result of the initial act in murdering Duncan.
The fact that we feel sympathy for these characters is also an indication that we recognise their capacity to make mistakes and choose inappropriate options. Lear’s later destitution, and Macbeth’s brooding over the inevitability of his later crimes all enable us to empathise with the very human traits and weaknesses of their characters. Perhaps Shakespeare wanst us to remember that the tradgery of Macbeth and Lear arises out of their own faults; the disasterous consequences of these faults surely prompt the notion that the audienence should learn from the plays, and seek to restrain our destructive potential, through realising the consequences of our actions.
When we first see King Lear, it is as an arbitrator, one whose infirmity has brought him to abdicate his kingship. Lear’s descision appears to be a sound policy, ensuring the future peace of the kingdom:
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughter’s several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.’ (1.)
Lear is an infirm, perhaps dying man, he requires the support of his daughters in old age. Perhaps he thinks, by buying their gratitude with land, he will ensure a peaceful retirement, without the discomfort of confict for power when he becomes too weak to govern. Lear’s division may be bourne out of insecurity for his own future:
…and tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and burdens from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthened crawl toward death… ‘ (2.)
Lear’s insecurity is seen in his refusal to abandon all power; he maintains a small standing army:
Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundered knights…
Make with you by due turn. Only, we shall retain
the name and all th’ addition to a king.’ (3.)
Perhaps as a result of his insecurity, Lear has a practical, perhaps materialistic view of relationships and allegiances. In seeking to attain his daughters’ love, he must be satisfied that they profess to love him. For Lear, overt declarations of loyalty reflect truth and inner character:
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend…’ (4.)
Alexander Leggatt has defined Lear’s insecurity as as a child-like desire to attain comfort, whist relinquishing power, yet maintain the status of king:
Beneath the titanic arrogance Lear is vulnerable, anxious, needing to be assured of his future, with the contradictiory wants of a child: ease and power, love that is given and love that is secured by being bought.’ (5.)
Lear expects Cordelia to express an ideal love for her father, demonstrating a naive belief in the validity of courtly protocol, and an obsession with the material reflection of social order. Goneril and Regan’s love is material and illusory, suggested in the reflective light of their metal,’ wheras Cordelia’s ponderous love,’ which she cannot heave into her mouth,’ is both immaterial and sincere.
Regan: I am made of that self metal as my sister..’ (6.)
Lear’s obsession with the facade of courtly heirarchial order, and with the appearance and professions of individuals, rather than their characters, blinds him to Cordelia’s profesions of truth – a comment from Shakespeare perhaps on society’s own obsession with worth as a reflection of outward appearance:
What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak. ‘ (7.)
Cordelia challenges Lear’s materialistic precepts on natural order. For Lear, the natural daughter should embrace the ceremony and rites of courtly life, as did Gonerial and Regan. Lear’s stubborn belief in social, moral and spiritual order, is reflected in his assumptions on the character of his daughters, and in his own identity as king. Cordelia’s refusal to deceive her father demonstrates the true validity of her love, but Lear’s ingrained precepts on the facade and ceremony of social order blind him to this:
How now! Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes.’ (8.)
Lear evokes supernatural forces in dennouncing Cordelia, his dismissal of her is a reflection of the artificiality of social order and of his own artificial, materialistic psyche. Lear’s dependance on the psyche of courtly ceremony and heriarchial order is reflected in his constant evokation of the spirit world, he frequently calls upon the gods in moments of rage or anguish, as if he himself is in league with divine forces:
By all the operation of the orbs
from whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care..’. (9.)
Lear’s kingly role is elemental to the divine structure of his psyche; he rages like an avenging Zeus or Jupiter, and governs like a fighting man, whose instincts are to act and react with descisive efficiency, seen in his unrepentant rejection of Cordelia and Kent:
Come not betwixt the dragon and his wrath.’ (10.)
Lear is given a choice soon after his division of the kingdom – voiced by Kent, Lear still has the opportunity to recant his descision:
Reserve thy state:
And, in thy best consideration, check
This hideous rashness… ‘ (11.)
Kents’s interuption indicates how Lear’s descison cannot be reversed because of his flawed charcter. Like his rash dismissal of Cordelia, and immediate rewarding of Regan and Goneril, Lear responds to Kent with vigourous consistency. Lear’s kingly pride prohibits the recantion of his oaths. Lear calls upon the Gods as witnesses to this playing out of divine justice:
Thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride
To come betwixt our sentance and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear..’ (12.)
The question here is the central reason for Lear’s catastrophic error. Are Lear’s actions detrmined by a fully sentient, self-conscious capacity to reason? Is Lear subject to an irrational, perhaps insane or senile psychology, or are Lears’ actions determined by fate, or some other divine influence? The answer to this question is surely the pivotal moral perspective in the play, and Shakespeare’s central message on the tragedy of Lear.
Lear does have a choice in making his descisons, he even has a second chance; the fact that he discards this chance suggests that he is not a rational character, but one whose descisions are based upon an irrational psyche.
Lear’s inability to make sound jugements is demonstrated by a lack of serious contemplation common to many of Shakespeare’s protagonists – as seen in Macbeth’s anguished deliberations before killing Duncan. Macbeth’s sins are calculated transgressions; like Lear, Macbeth is a warrior, and acts with the swift acumen of the killer, but is also sensible to the horror he is about to commit. For Macbeth, the murder will be a trade or pact with fortune, his actions arise from his ability to manipulate and restrain moral inhibitions. Lear’s conscience, however is usually clear following erronous descisions, his actions are grounded in the moral order of his own psyche – he acts without doubt, whereas Macbeth must contend with self-doubt in the contemplation of his crime:
Art not thou fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? ‘ (Macbeth,) (13.)
Lear’s inability to reason is reflected in Goneril and Regan’s comments that Lear is mad:
Tis the infirmity of his age;
Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ (14.)
Lear’s preocupation with the occult, and with divine forces sugegsts an overreliance on religion as a justification for his own acts and beliefs. Lear’s early evokation of the gods when edicting jugement suggests this reliance on precepts of divine influence in kingship and social order. Similarly, when Lear falls from power, this reliance on the divine is reflected in his appeals to the Gods to restore his power. Lear’s later prayers are not so much an affirmation of his own kingly and divine status within cosmic order, but a stubborn appeal to the forces of fate and destiny which he still beleives determine his existance. Leggatt has described Lear’s refusal to abandon his old precepts as the attempt to maintain. not only identity but very fabric of his being:
Lear fights passionately at his noblest against the death of self.’ (15.)
The futility of these appeals are reflected in the sublimity of the storm scenes, which reflect not only the distemper of Lear’s conditon, but also the futility of his continued reliance upon the forces of cosmic order, as reflected in the immensity and impenetrability of the natural world:
Let the great Gods,
that keep this dreadful pudder o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. ‘ (16.)
Kent, whose authority we accept as the rational perspective in Lear’s court, insists that Lear is responsible for what is about to occur, Lear’s evokation of divine justice is hollow:
Now, by Apollo, King,
Thou swer’st thy Gods in vain. ‘ (17.)
Lear’s actions are the result of his own distemper, not the divine forces which he evokes so often; the very fact that the influence of the divine is rejected by Kent, and its validity dismissed in the futility of Lear’s later desperate appeals, suggests that Lear is responsible for his own fall. Shakespeare makes the point, that human action defines the future, rather than arbitary heavenly influence. This is seen in the consistant fall of characters who justify their actions or beleifs on the basis of natural order. Edmund, who professes a kinship with the predatory forces of nature, falls as a consequence of his ethically justified usurpation of Gloucester; his rejection of human and divine morality is the cause of his fall:
Edmund the base
Shall top th’legitimate – I grow, I prosper;
Now gods, stand up for bastards!’ (18.)
Similarly, Glocester professes the same kind of adherance to cosmic law as Lear’s belief in his daughters’ love. Gloucester, when convinced by Edmund of Edgar’s treachery, professes a belief in the natural’ loyalty of Edmund. This constant discussion of deception, appearance and inner reality, suggests that Shakespeare is attacking contemporary society’s respect for outward appearance. It is no coincidence that on stage, Edmund is often represented as a dashing, fashionably dressed aristocrat, and Edgar as an unkempt and absent minded bucolic:
Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means
To make thee capable. ‘ (19.)
Lear’s abdication is indecisive, and causes divisions in the kingdom, rather than settle them. The ensuring conflict between Goneril and Regan, and between Gloucester and Cornwall illustrates the chaotic effects of disunity. The cause of conflict between Lear and his daughters is Lear’s insistence on retaining the authority of king, after having supposedly granted them autonomy. The refusal of Goneril and Regan to tolerate Lear’s riotous troup is also a structural device, the daughters represent the chaotic forces that Lear has created. Gloucester’s philosiphising on the state of the nation following Lear’s division is reflected in astrological portends of disaster in the social and moral world:
Love cools, friendship falls off,
brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries,
discord; in palaces treason; and the bond cracked twixt
Son and father…’ (20.)
Lear’s descision to divide his kingdom, and relinquish power may lie in his simple inability to govern as an old man, although later feasting and carousing suggests otherwise. Lear is ultimately responsible for the degeneration of the nation, and it is his unsound policies which cause the disasters to come. Lear’s main mistake is in the way he abdicates power, we cannot help wondering if the nation could not have been better goverened, perhaps under Albany. We are inclined to consider the possibility that Lear’s flaw was sheer foolishness, rather than the results of a complex phychological condition. Lear develops a growing awareness of his mistake:
O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in,
And thy dear judgement out! ‘ (21)
The fool is another structural device by which we are convinced of Lear’s personal responsibility, he constantly reminds Lear of his spurrned responsibilities as King – and of the consequences of his mistakes:
Thou should’st not have been old till thou hadst been wize’. (22.)
The results of Lear’s error in dividing the kingdom cummulates in his rejection onto the heath. Lear contests with the elements, trying to reason with the calamity which has robbed him of both power and identity as king. Lear’s madness results because he cannot accept the transition from king to man which he himself precipitated; the storm is both a metaphor for the turmoil of Lear’s mind, and the indifference of the cosmic order he clings to. Lear’s chastisement of the elements suggests a continued inability to understand the true fabric of human nature, and natural order. Rather than fully repent his sins, Lear pleads with the divine forces of destiny:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. ‘ (23.)
Lear’s reunion with Cordelia in Dover sees his return to sanity, and acceptance of his responsibility for the turmoil he has caused; Lear cannot beleive that he has been granted a reprieve, and thinks he is dead. Lear realises his past sins, and has accepted responsibility for his actions. Cordelia tells Lear not to kneel before her:
I now you do not love me; for your sisters
have as I remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.’ (24.)
Lear’s reconcilliation with Cordelia prompts the realisation of his errors, and of the invalidity of his former beliefs.
The failure of the battle with Edmund, and murder of Cordelia is the last damning indication from Shakespeare that Lear is not immune from the forces of evil, and that the erronous actions of all men, including kings, must bear consequences. Had Cordelia lived, this fact would have been obscured by the ensuing apparency of divine social order. In the words of Regan,
O! Sir, to wilful men,
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters.’ (25.)
As has been demonstrated, the causes of Lear’s fall are manifold, but are ultimately traced back to an incapacity to reason, (Lear’s distemper,) and an inclination to deal rashly with situations.
Whilst we may have sympathies with Lear’s infirmities, and the bad luck in having daughters who are not only intolerant, but thoroughly evil, we must also remember Shakespeare’s obvious rejection of both divine influence, and the validity of fate. While the ending of Lear suggests the need to respond to tradgedy in a positive and reconstructive manner, this does not mean tragedy is inevitable. The active process of Albany and Edgar’s ressurection of the state is itself evidence of a beleif in the ability to determine events, rather than accept an apparently inevitable demise:
Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gorged state sustain.’ (Albany.) (26.)
The final message in the last scene, seems to suggest the importance and affirmation of moral order, but in a decidedly human, rather than divine context. Lear’s affirmation that Cordelia will never return affirms Kent’s comment that the situation is #cheerless, dark and deadly.’ Lear has brought about his own destruction, and has not been saved – a dammning indictment on the articificiality of Lear’s earlier divine ethics. The final destruction of Lear and Cordelia seems to epitomise Shakespeare’s portrayal of nature, as an environment in which both virtue and evil are physical realities, each contending for supremacy. Lear’s disasterous breakdown of social and political order induces the emergance of evil and anarchy – elements in human society that must be restrained in order to ensure the survival of civilisation and social order.
The human morality of virtuous men like Edgar and Albany are what sustains society, and will ensure its continuity. Shakespeare seems, therefore, to affirm the iportance of moral order in society, but also draws attention to the responsibility of individuals in maintaining that order. This suggests that whilst Shakespeare wants us to feel sympathy for Lear because of his flawed character, and the forces of evil that were beyond his control, it is ultimately Lear’s choice that determined his fall. Choice and destiny are invariably linked here, with little differentiation between the two. It is left to the audince to discern Shakespeare’s appeal for reason and the importance of choice amid the ambiguity of Lear. Lear himself sums up the neccessity of humanity to wake up to the fact that they are responsible for the determination of their own fate:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all,
I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever! ‘ (27.)
In shakespeare’s Macbeth,’ we are presented with a very different protagonist, one whose breach of moral and social order is almost certainly deliberate and calculated.
Macbeth is a hero in the tradiitonal sense, the defender of the realm aginst the usurpation and invasion of Cawdor and the king of Norway. Macbeth is a Thane,’ a traditonal Anglo-Gaelic warrior, whose unquestioned, loyalty for his lord symbolised the pre-Norman structure of British society, in which blood ties and valour were the fabric of social and poitical order:
The services and loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself. Your highnesse’s part
Is to receive our duties.’ (28.)
The encounter of Macbeth and Banquo with the wierd sisters is the real begining of the play. It is here that Banquo and Macbeth are informed of the possibilities that lie before them, and of their limitations. The sisters’ function acheives one main thing here – it provides us with a disquieting view of the human psyche, one capable of contemplating acts normally considered inconceivable under the moral inhibitions of civilised moral and religious psychology. The sisters are certainly a supernatural presence in the play, although this sensationalising factor is subordinate to the purpose of revealing inner truths of human society. The world of Macbeth and Duncan is one based upon blood-ties and blood-letting; one in which the degeneration of man into a psychotic killer is accomodated alongside the tradiitonal moral/ religious framework. Perhaps the witches’ main purpose is to reveal just how fragile the moral framework is on the minds of those celebrated belligerants, whose ironic task is to maintain social order through the infliction of suffering and death. In Act One, Scene 1, the witches’ paradoxical images of battle and conflict reflect the contracdictary nature of a civilisation built upon blood:
When the hurly burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.’ (29.)
The witches seem aberrant cosmic forces that, spurning some higher order, dabble in the affairs of Duncan’s court. Perhaps this abberance is symbolic of Macbeth’s own deviance from normalcy, and from conventional ethics and morality. Macbeth blames his contemplation of the kingship on the cosmic forces he has encountered in the sisters, their prediction that he will become Thane of Cawdor becomes reality on approaching Duncan’s court:
This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill,
why hath it given me earnest of sucess
Commencing in a truth?’ (30.)
Macbeth’s acension to the title of Cawdor is itself a spur to ambition; the witches’ prophesy of kingship for Macbeth seems more symbolic than evidence of an actual influence on Macbeth in aspiring to usurp Duncan. The witches symbolise both the capacity of man to contemplate the prohibited, and his capacity to take the evil side in Shakespeare’s nature. On the investiture of Malcom as Prince of Cumberland,’ Macbeth describes his inner yearning to attain yet more power in Duncan’s court, despite his plea for fate to conceal its lure:
The prince of Cumberland – that is a step
On which I must fall down or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires… (31.)
Macbeth’s inner compulsions are corrupted by his own ambition, and fueled by the workings of chance – as seen in the prophesised acquisition of Cawdor’s title. Macbeth is also influenced by his wife, who encourages his ambition, prompting Macbeth’s descent into amorality:
But screw your courage to the sticking palce
And we’ll not fail. ‘ (32.)
The declaration by the sisters’ apparition also adds to Macbeth’s sense of ambition, and his capacity to attain the kingship. The second apparition suggests tthat Macbeth cannot be killed of a woman born,’ and that he should scorn his enemies:
Be bloody, bold and resolute, Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.’ (33.)
Macbeth’s inner convictions are torn between ambition and his own morality. Macbeth is fully conscious of what he contemplates – the bloody reality of murder, a transaction with evil which will yield the kingship:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong against the deed.’ (34.) 1.7. 13-14
Macbeth’s moral dilemma, enhanced by the provocations of Lady macbeth and the witches, suggests the presence of chioce in the psychology of Macbeth before murdering Duncan; his compulsion to carry out the act is full of self doubt and personal anguish. Macbeth’s descision is the particular dilemma of one of Shakespeare’s most rounded and developed characters; his pain in determining events is almost palpable in the text:
…the sightless couriers of the air.
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’ other.’ (35.)
Kenneth Muir has described Macbeth as a rounded character,’ one with the full attributes of character:
Here is not a petty scoundrel, but an extraordinary man, so capricious in feling and motive as to have a compelling representativeness. ‘ (36.)
Like Edmund in King Lear, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth confess aleigance to forces of destiny and natural order which lie outside normal conventional morality and ethics. Like Edmund, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions are bourne out of a practical rejection of moral and social order, and they fall to the forces of virtue whose allegience is with social order and morality. The Avenging Macduff and Malcom are forces of social order, whose bloody confrontation with Macbeth will restore the social order of the state, and the ascendancy of Malcom. The supernatural element in the play, like the storm scene and constant allusion to divine forces in King Lear,’ suggests the presence of forces beyond our control in human society; perhaps, however, the supernatural simply symbolises evil, polarising the forces of morality and amorality as distinct elements in human society, and in the minds of the individual. The image of the bloody dagger, a phantasmorgic image of the mind, almost as ephemeral as the witches, symbolises Macbeth’s capacity to kill and reject his own moral psyche:
Is this a dagger which I see befoer me
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.’ (37.)
The second crime Macbeth committs is in the implication of Malcom and Donalbain as the murderers – the bloody daggers are placed with them as they sleep. This is a crime bourne out of neccessity, although Macbeth has regrets about his actions:
This is a sorry sight.’ (38.)
Banquo suggests that he is aware of Macbeth’s crime – his knowledge of the sister’s prophecy as Macbeth’s motive for the murder is a threat which demands either Macbeth’s or Banquo’s fall. Again, despite his reservations in harming Banquo, Macbeth is compelled to ensure his personal survival by having Banquo killed. The discussion of the murderers suggests Macbeth’s own murderous psyche, surviving through a bloody manipulation of events, and the rejection of fate:
So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune,
That i would set my life on any chance
To mend or to be rid on’t.’ (39.)
Macbeth’s crimes are the consequences of necessity, but all stem from his initial crime in murdering Duncan. Once he has commited this act, he is compelled to degenerate even deeper into amorality and guilt. The inability to accept this warped moral psyche is seen in Macbeth’s frequent disturbing visions; the spectre of Banquo is an admission that his frend;s death was Macbeth’s responsisbility:
Thou cans’t not say i did it, never shake thy gory locks at me.’ (40.)
The meeting of Hecate and the witches suggests that Macbeth would never had attempted the murder of Duncan, had he not been enticed by the witches, this implies that divine influence has played some part in Macbeth’s descision, but is itself illustrative of the invalidity of predestination in cosmic order; the witches are unrestrained forces, symbolising the amoral and uninhibitive capacity of Macbeth to kill for personal gain, their superior, Hecate cannot control them – they symbolise the free agency of evil in Macbeth’s mind, rather than a concrete external influence:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death and bear
His hopes above wizdom, grace and fear.’ (41.)
Macbeth is like the transgressional witches, an offending Adam, whose sin is to attain a forbidden prize in the form of Duncan’s kingship. Macbeth’s fall from grace is a corruption of the mind, symbolising the capacity of man to kill and inflict sufering on his fellows; the witches’ unnatural images suggest Macbeth’s amorality:
Finger of birth-strangled babe
ditch delivered by a drab.’ (42.)
The attempted murder of Macduff is Macbeth’s last calculated attempt to maintain his crown, although this will produce the union of Malcom and Macduff against Macbeth.
The ensuing battle sees Macbeth again disregarding fortune – his attitude in battle is to continue his fight for survival, despite his realisation that he has little chance against his enemy’s 10,000 men:
I’ll fight till form my bones my flesh be hacked
Give me my armour.’ (43.)
Muir describes macbeth as a man of noble charcter, whose initial flaw is the only caus eof his total destruction:
Macbeth early gives every sign of having a conscience, and later he exhibits
qualities of admiration – resourcefulness under severley taxing stresses, readiness for intolerable difficulties, resolution, the philosophic cast of mind, endurnce, bravery’ (44.)
The fall of Macbeth in battle is similar to that of Edmund in King Lear,’ Macbeth’s sin in murdering Duncan precipitates all the other bloody acts in the play, and determins the course of Macbeth’s degeneration into a bloody murderer. Our sympathies for Macbeth lie in his inability to reverse his condiiton, despite regret for what he is compelled to undertake to survive:
I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.’ (45.)
The necessity of action following the initial sin is reflected in Kenneth Muir’s comment:
Perhaps what the play says is that such a crime has inevitable consequences, that worldly profit – goods, honour, power – is so corrupting that, once committed to it, the hero can never realy abdure it, can never really repent, and seeks ways of spiritual abduration.’
Macbeth’s later descisions are bourne out of neccesity to side with amorality for survival, but his initial error – the cause of his fall, is his descision alone. Despite the influence of the Weird Sisters and of Lady Macbeth, we feel that Macbeth has made one fatal mistake as a result of his vaulting ambition,’ which has marred the fortunes of an otherwise virtuous and noble man. The symbology of the supernatural in the play seems to perform several function in the play: it polarises the two psychological states in Shakespeare’s conception of nature, as seen in King Lear;’ and it exposes the thin divide between morality and amorality in Elizabethan society, where violence and murder were integral to social convention, albeit under the names of patriotism and war.
Macbeth’s dilemma is that of all humanity, the inner instict to possess, in the course of which, all moral ethics are abandoned in attaining the desired result. Macbeth’s motives for killing reflect those of society – It is for survival that Macbeth continues to murder after his first fatal error, despite the repugance death holds for him:
I’ll go no more.
I am afraid to think what I have done,
Look on’t again I dare not.’ (46.)
In conclusion, Shakespeare seems to suggest the importance of human morality in the maintainence of social order, whilst the notion of destiny and fate is a psychological condition only, and not a true determinant of human affairs. Lear’s constant reference to divine and social order suggests the invalidity of predetermination, or the influences of divine agency, since Lear’s fall is also the fall of a psyche based upon a belief in personal inmmunity, and in the ethical structure of human nature, which her beleives will determine his daughter’s relationship with him. In Macbeth’s case, ambition and the calculated rejection of moral precepts is the cause of destruction. Wheras Lear violates moral and social order, producing an ensuing chaos, Macbeth is integral to that chaos, and symbolises the capacity of man to degenerate into murder and uninhibited savagery.
Shakespeare’s point in both plays, is the danger of social breakdown through the erronous actions of individuals, and of the affirmation of social and moral order throught the actions of virtuous men. In both plays, the validity of moral order is upheld, although the evil Lear and Macbeth have unleashed must bear the fruits of destruction. Divine justice could be said to triumph in the victories of Edgar and Macduff, but Shakespeare wants to make the point that divine order cannot reprieve the hero, or forces of morality. The forces of moral order must themselves act to staunch the wound caused by the forces of evil. It is for this reason that Macbeth is able to murder Banquo and Duncan, and to assume the role of King, despite his bloody and unnatural means of sucession; thef orces of evil are real, palpable and human, as are those of virtue.
Shakespeare wants to remind us of the importance of human morality, as oppoosed to divine justice. In King Lear, it is with the notion of moral responsibility that Lear constantly struggles on his path to self-discovery, and it is only in his eventual experssion of humility and plea for forgiveness that he is reconciled with Cordelia. Like the self-doubting Macbeth, Lear’s fall must continue to illustrate the consequences of irresponsible and amoral descisions. It is only in the active participation of moral order – seen in Malcom and Edmund, that morality triumphs.
The plays do therefore seem to suggest the importance of choice over predetermination or fate in the maintainence of social order within the nature of society. Similarly, both Lear and Macbeth do seem to act and react out of their own choices, rather than any kind of divine influence; their initial sin determins the inescapable retribution to follow, but it is their initial act which causes the subsequent chain of disasterous events.
The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997.
The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997.
Aspects Of Macbeth, Ed. K. Muir: Cambridge 1977.
King Lear, Alexander Leggatt: Harvester Press, 1988.
Shakespeare, The Poet and His Plays, S. Wells: Methuen 1997.
The Unnatural Scene, Michael Long: Methuen 1976.
(1.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 42-43
(2.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 37-40
(3.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 132-135
(4.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 50-51
(5.) King Lear, Alexander Leggatt: Harvester Press, 1988, P. 74
(6.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1.68
(7.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1.84-85
(8.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 93-94
(9.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 110-112
(10.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 121
(11.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 148-150
(12.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 167-70
(13.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.1. 36-37
(14.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 292-3
(15.) King Lear, Alexander Leggatt: Harvester Press, 1988, P.69
(16.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 3.2. 49-51
(17.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.1. 159-60
(18.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.2. 21-22
(19.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 2.1. 84-85.
(20.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.2. 103-106
(21.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.4. 269-271
(22.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 1.5. 41
(23.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 3.2. 21-24
(24.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 4.7. 73-75
(25.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 2.4. 300-301.
(26.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 5.3. 319.
(27.) The Arden Shakespeare, King Lear, Ed. K. Muir: Routledge 1997, 5.3. 268-269
(28.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.4. 22-24
(29.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.1. 3-4
(30.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1-3. 129-131
(31) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.4. 48-51
(32) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.7. 60-61.
(33) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 4.1. 95-97.
(34) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.7. 13-14
(35) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 1.7. 23-27
(36) Aspects of Macbeth – E. Kenneth Muir, Cambridge Press, 1977, P.28
(37) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.1. 3-9
(38) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.2. 17
(39) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 3.1. 113-115
(40) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 3.4. 49
(41) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 3.5. 32-32
(42) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 4.1.
(43) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 5.3. 32-33.
(44.) Aspects Of Macbeth, Ed. K. Muir: Cambridge 1977, P. 35
(45.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 5.5. 13-15
(46.) The Oxford shakespeare, The Complete Works, Ed. S. Wells: Oxford 1997, 2.3. 47-49.