Starting with this speech, explore how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character.
-how Shakespeare presents Macbeth in this extract
-how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character in the play as a whole
[30 marks] + [4 marks for spag]
Shakespeare presents the violent construct of Macbeth as a cautionary tale against a patriarchal society that glorifies violence as masculine, to discourage the nobles against regicide and violence by warning them of the consequences and to encourage James to become a peaceful, benevolent king through demonstrating how violence begets more violence, “blood will have blood” so that he will be more merciful to the Catholic Rebels.
Shakespeare introduces the masculine violence of Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 2. In this scene, he is shown to be an extremely violent warrior acting in the supposed best interest of his country, and in a way that is deemed honourable. The Captain recounts his frenzied attack in which his steel “smoked with bloody execution”. This metaphor conveys both the impressive speed with which Macbeth wields his sword, presenting the view of him as more of an efficient weapon in the country’s artillery than an individual with human qualms against murder, and the frequency at which Macbeth is able to kill on the battlefield for the blood on his sword to remain “smoking” further emphasising his skill for violence.
The description of his actions in battle as an “execution” reinforces the idea that Macbeth’s killing is impersonal and occupational. This presents the view that Macbeth was not a murderer, but an executioner acting in the interest of the country and therefore was not culpable. This exemplifies how normalised violence disguised as patriotism incites more violence as a result, especially when the enormity of killing as many people as Macbeth does is minimised or reinforced with titles and praise. It is not until the end of the play when Macbeth is undoubtedly not acting in the best interest of the country that he is called a “butcher”. Through this narrative of Macbeth as a ruthless soldier who demonstrates violent qualities and eventually goes on to commit regicide and murder Shakespeare may be encouraging James (as the first and intended audience) to consider the implications of breeding violence in the nobility and acclimating his company to murder. Therefore, this might discourage James from instigating violence against the “Catholic threat” and rebels because of the potential personal consequences. Shakespeare may have intended to do this as he is suspected to have been Catholic (or at the very least have Catholic family and friends) and had some level of association with the gunpowder plotters, so it would be in his interest to prevent the king from taking violent action against them as a group, the way Elizabeth I did.
As the play progresses, Macbeth’s proclivity for violence comes into question. Before he becomes resolute in his decision to murder Duncan, he seems reluctant to go through with the murder. He insists that it is not masculine to do anything more than is appropriate for a man, “I dare do all that may become a man who dares do more is none”. This may show that Macbeth feels satisfied with the honours and rewards he has received from the king and does not feel the need to take the violence that got him to this point (his brutal murder of Macdonwald and consequent reward with the title of thane of Cawdor) any further, “he hath honoured me of late”.
Alternatively, this exemplifies Macbeth’s mentality that violence can get him what he wants; so that when Lady Macbeth accuses him of being a coward and exploits the insecurity he has with his masculinity, he may view murdering Duncan as a way to display traditionally masculine qualities and earn his wife’s respect the way he was able to earn Duncan’s. This acts as a cautionary tale against a patriarchal society as without the assignment of certain traits as masculine and therefore positive, or feminine and therefore weak (in the context of male characters), Macbeth may not have felt he needed to go through with the murder and therefore other violent displays in the play as he would not be so easily manipulated by Lady Macbeth. Additionally, without the restrictions of the patriarchal society she lived in Lady Macbeth may not have felt the need to encourage Macbeth’s violence to gain more control over her situation.
In Act 2, Scene 2, Shakespeare reminds the audience of the consequences for violence and regicide by referencing the outcomes they would be faced with in the afterlife, “that summons thee to heaven or hell”. Macbeth references the judgement of Duncan’s soul specifically. This may be significant as it serves to remind the original audience of the King and his court that a monarch, while chosen by God, is not automatically entitled to go to heaven. This may have been intended to encourage James to make moral decisions unlike Macbeth (particularly involving the “Catholic Threat”) and avoid the violence Macbeth constantly perpetrates as he too would face judgement in the afterlife. However, this is also applicable to the Nobility to encourage them not to take advantage of their position to attempt to commit regicide as Macbeth does later in the play as it reminds them that even if they succeed, they will face eternal torture in the afterlife as they have defied God’s plan.
Alternatively, this may be to show the self-destructive nature of Macbeth’s violence as he believes in the concept of heaven or hell and should expect to face the same judgement but continues with his wicked plan, ultimately condemning himself to fire and brimstone punishment in the eyes of a contemporary audience. This shows us as the audience that Macbeth is not of sound mind as he does not take into consideration his own wellbeing and only cares about the power he can gain through violent means.
Later in the play, Duncan’s death is shown to have enabled Macbeth to commit greater feats of violence as he has already condemned himself to a set fate he cannot repent from. This can be seen when he murders the two guards to prevent himself from being implicated, “I do repent me of my fury that I did kill them”, this may be in order to demonstrate that after committing regicide, a man could not serve as king honourably as he has done the worst and cannot be trusted to be a benevolent king to his people as he has no motivation to as he is undoubtedly going to hell so does not need to follow religious teachings against violence or other sins. This warning may have been intended to gain Shakespeare favour from the King to elicit favour from patronage.
Shakespeare dissuades his original audience from violent actions through the character of Macbeth by showing his immense regret after the murder of Banquo and his newfound understanding that “blood will have blood” which is perhaps a discrete message to King James that his actions against the Catholics will have negative consequences and that he needs to extend some mercy in order to end the cycle of religious persecution during this volatile time. This idiom also references the key symbolism of blood as guilt, therefore perhaps suggesting that in these situations every party is guilty, and none are abiding by their religious values of tolerance and compassion and so are guilty of sin.
At the end of the play, Macbeth’s violence is most clearly shown. The quotation “the gashes do better upon them”, this shows the change in Macbeth’s attitude towards violence throughout the play as in the beginning he was reluctant to kill Duncan, not wanting to lose his humanity or behave cruelly outside the battlefield. However, before his death in the final scenes he seems to have lost any of his unwillingness and acts solely in self-preservation, preferring to kill than be killed, showing his warrior-like mindset. Therefore, throughout the play Macbeth is shown to become more comfortable with the idea of murder and begins to value human life less and less, demonstrated through his reaction to Lady Macbeth’s death “thou should’ve died hereafter”, proving to the audience that he is ill suited for the role of King compared to Duncan who showed genuine care and compassion to his subjects. This may have been a message to King James that he should be extremely cautious with the decision to execute as he did in response to the gunpowder plot as a good King values the lives of his subjects and does not seek to use violence against them.
In conclusion, Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a character who becomes more comfortable with violence and murder as the play progresses but initially acts with extreme cruelty in war, displaying his potential for barbarity. He uses the construct of Macbeth as an extremely violent character by the end of the play to warn of the consequences of a tyrant king who reigns through fear, to discourage any treasonous actions from the nobles or the population by demonstrating how a wrongful leader can never be as suitable as one chosen by God and to show how the origin of many of these issues is the patriarchal society’s assignment of rigid gender roles that encourage men to be aggressive and make women desperate to maintain any control over their lives.