A Pinch of Fate, a Dash of Mistakes
An analysis on the inequity of life depicted by Shakespeare’s characters in Macbeth.
When everything is falling apart, one can’t help but wonder whether this fact is a result of their flaws or is it a matter of hapless destiny? William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, takes place in Scotland during the reign of the virtuous King Duncan. The plot revolves around the Scottish thane Macbeth, who goes beyond all measures in order to fulfil a prophecy that is revealed to him by three deceptive witches. As a result of him trying to first capture and then maintain his power to the throne, Macbeth and those around him end up having to pay for his immoral deeds. In Macbeth, while all three of the following characters experience downfall, Duncan and Banquo’s death is due to a combination of their naivety and circumstance, however Macbeth’s consequences are due entirely to his own actions and deficiencies.
Firstly, King Duncan experiences death as a result of circumstance as well as his credulousness. In terms of circumstance, Duncan is killed because he is the king during the time the prophecy is revealed to Macbeth and not because of any abhorrence that Macbeth may hold against him. During Macbeth’s soliloquy in which he decides that Duncan’s murder would be easy if there were no penalties to face after completing the deed, he declares,” Besides, this Duncan/Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels” (1.7.16–19). Macbeth acknowledges that Duncan is a just ruler, however since his aspiration of becoming king cannot become a reality for as long as Duncan lives, Macbeth ultimately carries out the murder.
Although circumstance plays the major role in Duncan’s downfall, his own shortcomings cannot be overlooked. Duncan is too trusting of other people and is unaware of their ulterior motives. For instance, he is deceived by the thane of Cawdor in the first act of the play as he assists the Norwegian army during the war against Scotland. Perhaps it is easy for the thane of Cawdor to betray his country because he perceives Duncan as someone whom he can easily double-cross. When Duncan is informed by Malcolm that the thane of Cawdor has died a noble death by confessing and repenting for his treason, he replies, “There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face:/He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust” (1.4.12–13). Duncan has poor judgement of character and should refrain from putting so much faith and conviction in a person without having absolute affirmation of their loyalty.
Duncan commits the same mistake twice when he chooses Macbeth to take the place of the thane of Cawdor. When Duncan discovers the original thane of Cawdor’s betrayal from Ross, a nobleman of Scotland, he instantaneously appoints Macbeth to his place. Duncan does not take the time to comprehensively think though his decision and assesses Macbeth’s qualities and character only based on the one fight in which he slaughters Macdonwald. The consequence Duncan faces is ironic because he gets murdered by the one whom he praises as “valiant cousin” and “worthy gentleman” (1.2.24) and most importantly, deeply trusts to fulfil the role of the thane of Cawdor.
Secondly, Banquo’s case is similar to Duncan’s since his homicide is caused by an amalgamation of circumstance and his weakness, which was his delay in figuring out Macbeth’s plans. In terms of circumstance, Banquo’s death is due to the witches’ prophecy that reveals Banquo’s descendants will become king and this remains a threat to his companion’s security to power. Although it is prophesized that Banquo will not become King of Scotland, Macbeth accepts that Banquo “hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour/To act in safety” (3.7.52–53). Macbeth is aware of Banquo’s inborn nobility and this realisation stimulates his terror and jealousy against him. Macbeth knows he will remain fearful for as long as Banquo and his sons stand in the way of his position as king, therefore Banquo is put in such a situation because of the witches’ predictions together with Macbeth’s personal objectives.
Banquo’s feebleness, however, is that he remains naïve to Macbeth’s intentions and once he does start to realise them, he chooses not to take any action. Although he is aware of both his and Macbeth’s prophecies, he fails to analyse the situation and connect Duncan’s murder to the fact that the only prediction left to come true for Macbeth is him becoming king. In his last soliloquy, he starts to become aware of the fact that Macbeth has “play’dst most foully” (3.1.3) for his status as king. Instead of devising a plan to expose Macbeth’s wickedness, Banquo decides not to speak of it and secretly hopes for his prophecy to come true as it has for Macbeth, even though he refuses to believe the witches earlier in the play. Banquo finally faces the consequence and as he is dying, he tells his son, Fleance, “thou mayst revenge” (3.4.16). Although he mentions no name, it seems as though deep inside he knows this is Macbeth’s malevolent doing and comes to realise it is too late.
Lastly, unlike Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth not only dies a dishonourable death but experiences other unfortunate events during his life such as the everlasting feeling of guilt after murdering Duncan, the disturbing hallucination of Banquo’s ghost which causes him to make a fool out of himself in front of the other thanes, the lack of respect, love, obedience and troops of friends to accompany him into his old age and the loss of his wife, the only true comrade he has left after his people declare him a “tyrant” and turn against him. All of these downfalls are a result of his faults and cannot be blamed on circumstance. When the witches are telling the prophecy to Macbeth, he is taken aback at the revelation which shows he has no original intention of obtaining the title of thane or king before his encounter with the witches; however it is Macbeth’s gullibility that allows a few unidentified women’s words to have such a great influence on him. On the other hand, when Banquo listens to the same prophecies that Macbeth has heard, he declares the witches as “devils” and “instruments of darkness” (3.1.107, 124) which reveals Banquo is sceptical of the witches. Although later on Banquo does hope for the prophecy to become a reality, he does not act impulsively like Macbeth. Therefore it is Macbeth’s depraved qualities that lead him to face the music and not circumstance.
Moreover, Macbeth is easily manipulated by Lady Macbeth to murder King Duncan and falls into the trap of her taunting. In his soliloquy where he is contemplating over killing Duncan, he admits he has no motive to execute the deed except overweening ambition and then informs Lady Macbeth that he will “proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31). However after his wife mocks his manliness and lashes him with all the scorn at her command, Macbeth is easily tempted again to carry out the plan even though he is aware of the consequences and culpability he will have to endure. On top of his unwariness, impetuosity and ability to being easily steered, Macbeth also brings out his overconfidence after the witches once again swindle him with the assurance that he cannot be harmed by anyone born on woman and until Birnam wood moves to Dunsinane hill. In his final meeting with Macduff during the war against his forces and the English troops, Macbeth relies on the witches’ words as he proclaims, “Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests; I bear a charmed life, which must not yield/To one of woman born” (5.8.11–13). Just as Macbeth declares his superiority, Macduff destroys all his overconfidence by revealing he was born by caesarean section and puts an end to Macbeth’s dictatorship. All of Macbeth’s downfalls are rightly deserved because of his sinful actions and decadent qualities.
In brief, although all three characters are murdered, death is only justifiable in Macbeth’s case since it is a consequence of his erroneous deeds. However, along with weakness, fate is involved in Duncan and Banquo’s death, on which they have no control over. The inequity of life is depicted by Shakespeare’s characters in this play by showing how people with different traits and choice of actions end up with the same consequence, whether they deserve it or not.