Joseph Conrad and William Shakespeare are not traditionally paired up for a critical analysis. However, the characters MacBeth and Kurtz in MacBeth and Heart of Darkness, respectively, prove to be worthy of comparison. MacBeth and Kurtz share many common characteristics: both have vaulting ambition that leads both to their success and their demise, a superiority complex, and both make similar sacrifices to achieve their goal. Despite their many similarities, MacBeth and Kurtz differ in many respects. The way the authors present each character varies greatly, and the way each interacts with his surroundings contrast a great deal. The circumstances that follow their actions also differ since the societies in which they live are not similar in any aspect. Through their many similarities and differences, MacBeth and Kurtz prove to be characters filled with evilness, and upon a closer examination, the differing degrees of that evilness are seen.
Both MacBeth and Kurtz s initial actions are dominated by ambition. MacBeth chooses to overthrow King Duncan for the sole purpose of his own political gain. He even admits that he “[has] no spur/ To prick the sides of [his] intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition, which o erleaps itself/ And falls on th other” (Act I, sc. 7). Despite many other good reasons for overthrowing a king, such as for the good of the state or if the king is infringing on the people s rights, MacBeth claims only selfish intentions. Like MacBeth, Kurtz, too, starts his road to evil with ambition. Kurtz, in order to earn his Intended s hand, goes to Africa to make something of himself. Instead of going on a “heavenly mission to civilize”(Conrad, 70) the savages, Kurtz s intentions, from the start, are to make money as quickly as possible. And he does. This “vaulting ambition” leads both met to climb the ladder of success at a quick pace. MacBeth is named “Thane of Cawdor” after one brave battle; Kurtz is given control of the Inner Station because of his success in bringing in ivory. Ambition, though traditionally looked at as a positive characteristic cause both men to perform evil deeds.
With ambition and success comes a feeling of superiority. Both MacBeth and Kurtz are portrayed as men who think themselves to be above God. MacBeth knows that the crime of killing a king goes against the chain of being theory (definition: That men are put into classes by a higher power. Therefore, kings are put in their positions by God himself and no man can argue with their “divine right”.) and yet he feels that God cannot punish him so long as fate is on his side. He puts such confidence in the three Weird Sisters that he can t even see that their evilness is leading him down the wrong path. His appointment to Thane of Cawdor makes him believe that he is better than anyone else, even Duncan. Why should he be more qualified for the position of king that any one of Duncan s other trusted comrades? The truth is that he isn t; He only believes himself to be. This superiority complex cannot be illustrated better than through Kurtz. Not only does he believe himself to be higher than God, he actually thinks of himself as a god. The way the natives worship him and how the “chiefs . . . would crawl” (Conrad, 133) to him are examples of the way he tricked the ignorant natives into thinking of him as a god. They carried him around on a stretcher and just adored him even though he forced them to get ivory and punished them harshly. Because of his powerful position and because he truly believed that he was in many ways better than everyone else, Kurtz was able to convince everyone he came in contact with of this theory of his god-like stature. Both men thought of themselves as superior because of the titles and duties earned from their evil and cheated ambition.
MacBeth and Kurtz s evil ambition and feelings of superiority lead to their downfall. Both men follow the path that leads to evil and therefore they, in the end, must sacrifice their chance of eternal happiness. MacBeth recognizes his fate when he states, “Out, Out, brief candle!/ Life s but a walking shadow”(Act V, sc. 5). He no longer pretends to be a god because he knows that fate is no longer on his side. Because he murdered, he now must sacrifice his life, and by doing so, he will restore order to the chaos he has created. Kurtz, though not as perceptive as MacBeth, also pays for his evil deeds with his life. Whether he, in fact, recognizes his fate, is unknown, but his last words symbolize the contribution he has made to the society that surrounds him, “The Horror! The Horror!” (Conrad, 147).
Despite the many characteristics that MacBeth and Kurtz share, they differ in extraordinary ways also, such as the way the authors present each character. Conrad and Shakespeare, writers of different times and cultures, cannot be expected to write or develop characters in a similar way. Thus, MacBeth is presented much more directly than is Kurtz. MacBeth, at times, even speaks directly to the audience in the form of a soliloquy. Kurtz is barely even allowed to speak at all. Instead, Kurtz s character is developed through what others say and perceive about him. Conrad constantly makes reference to Kurtz s voice through characters such as the Russian and his statement of: “You don t talk with that man You listen” (Conrad, 127). MacBeth s thoughts and ideas are very clear at all times even though he is a highly complex character. Kurtz portrays an idea of “appearance vs. reality” in the way Conrad presents him. All of the other characters in Heart of Darkness talk of Kurtz as a “universal genius” (Conrad, 151) but in reality, he is only just an extremely gifted speaker. He is, in truth, “hollow at the core” (Conrad, 133). So, in these aspects of depth of character and the “voice” given to the character, MacBeth and Kurtz are really on two separate playing fields.
Not only do MacBeth and Kurtz differ in the way the author s present them, but also in the way they interact with their surroundings. MacBeth, after he kills Duncan and upsets the entire chain of being, actually changes his surroundings. Scotland is now tormented by unnatural acts. Lady MacBeth walks in her sleep; Duncan s horses “[turn] wild in nature” (Act II, sc. 4) and eat one another; a solar eclipse occurs; and “a falcon, tow ring in her pride of place/ Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed” (Act II, sc. 4); just “hours dreadful and things strange,” (Act II, sc. 4) are happening because MacBeth has committed a crime against nature. Kurtz responds to his surroundings quite differently. Instead of changing them, he is, in fact, changed by them. The isolation of the Congo and the blackness of the jungle force him to look deep inside himself, to see the man that he is once all the veils of civilization and society are stripped away. The realization of what kind of man he truly is changes Kurtz forever. What he sees is never told, but from the person he becomes, one can tell it was evil in its purest form. No longer are there consequences for his actions, Kurtz is free, in his environment, to become the animal that all humans will revert back to if given the opportunity. The way that MacBeth and Kurtz respond to their surroundings shows a huge contrast in these two characters.
Along with the changes in their surroundings, the way each character is affected by these changes creates another difference between MacBeth and Kurtz. MacBeth, after his murdering of Duncan, has guilt. Guilt is something that is never seen from Kurtz. Because his surroundings provide for him a way to receive no consequences, he doesn t see or understand the harm he has caused. MacBeth, on the other hand, sees the negative impact his actions have caused in everything he does. Also, he knew what effects his actions would produce before he carried them out, therefore making the murder even more evil and the guilt that much harder to bear. The hallucinations that MacBeth experiences are the psychological results of that the guilt. He can t overcome the guilt over murdering his king. This guilt, like his ambition, leads to his final destruction because the mental weariness he experiences is just too great to handle. Kurtz experiences none of this. Because he feels that he is a god and therefore it is acceptable for him to take a human life, he has no guilt for the evilness he creates and acts upon. The differences in the way each character deals with the crimes he has committed shows no only his mental status, but also how encompassed he has become by evil.
Both MacBeth and Kurtz share the same qualities of ambition, superiority, and the sacrifice of their life because of the lives they have taken. These connections can be made because of the evil that is intertwined in both characters. The evil in them is brought forth through the evil deeds they commit. Where the two differ, though, is in their behavior after the murders have been committed. In MacBeth, an almost apologetic behavior is seen. His guilt, through the hallucinations, proves that he, at least subconsciously, is sorry for what he has done. In Kurtz, no sympathy or guilt is seen. Through this apathetic behavior, one must question whether Kurtz is really sound in mind. It is a natural human instinct to at least have some guilt after committing an offense against another human. The evil that is in both these characters ties them together, but their morals after the acts are committed sets them apart as MacBeth is seen as more of a human being; and Kurtz, more of an animal.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: NAL Penguin Inc., 1983.
Shakespeare, William. MacBeth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.