Is Malcolm s final judgement of Macbeth an accurate epitaph?
I would argue that the phrase this dead butcher would seem fully justified to describe a king who has caused the deaths of so many innocent people, but is an over-simple and rash judgement by Malcolm in his emotional circumstances. I would suggest that the label moral coward would be a more suitable title for Macbeth and his attempts to divorce himself from his murderous deeds.
When Macbeth chooses ambition over his conscience it is the cataclysmic event in the play that adds excitement and tension to the play, but for Macbeth to fulfil this ambition he needs evil. For Macbeth, evil and ambition come hand in hand because he needs to be evil to kill Duncan in order to achieve his ambition. They can be separate but Macbeth uses them in an immoral way. I would then propose that Macbeth is not completely a butcher but more of a moral coward. This is demonstrated by his attempts to cover his deeds through darkness and by divorcing himself from the murders.
The dramatic unity of the play is complete when Macbeth puts on his armour before going into battle. This image of clothing is a recurring theme that has special relevance to Macbeth. When he gets his armour back it shows that has returned to the good, noble Macbeth that he heard of at the start of the play, his armour is his natural clothing because he has been a soldier all of his life. The removal of his borrow d robes emphasises the dramatic unity. The idea of borrow d robes reinforces the fact that the robes of kingship do not fit him because they are not rightfully his. A stereotypical view of a butcher would be a person with venomous red eyes with a grand silver carving knife shining under the moonlight, but another aspect many people associate with a butcher is their apron. A butcher wears an apron to cover their clothes from getting bloodstains on them. For Macbeth, his metaphorical apron covers his evil and bloody deeds to stop himself feeling guilty; one aspect of Macbeth s apron is his hallucination of the dagger before he murders Macbeth.
Macbeth s guilt stems from his belief that the deeds he commits are unnatural, and in Duncan s case, sacrilegious. His guilt manifests into hallucinations. Firstly, Macbeth is led by his dagger to kill Duncan,
I have thee not, and yet I still see thee
Thou marshall st me the way that I was going
To avoid guilt Macbeth divorces himself from the deed, this is a common theme throughout the play and is used for the same purpose as Macbeth uses it: to avoid a guilty conscience. The theme of divorcing himself from the deeds exemplifies my suggestion that Macbeth was in fact a moral coward who knew what he was doing but just did not want to feel any guilt for committing the deed. It is not just Macbeth who divorces himself from his murderous deeds. Lady Macbeth also divorces herself from the deed of murder. She personifies the keen knife to make it feel separate so she can place the blame on the knife and have no feelings of guilt. The image of the dagger is one of many examples of Macbeth s guilty feelings. In my opinion, Macbeth s guilt proves that he is not a butcher in the literal sense because a butcher has no conscience about murder. Macbeth is not a good murderer and therefore he must evoke the powers of evil and darkness to help him kill Duncan,
Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires
This is another example of Macbeth divorcing himself from the deed to avoid feelings of guilt and because he is not a good murderer then I would suggest that it makes him less of a butcher. Macbeth calls upon evil to help him commit the deed of murder,
Now o er one half world Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse The curtan d sleep
It could be argued that unless Macbeth knows evil he cannot summon it. In the aside in Act 1 Scene 4, Macbeth talks in rhyming couplets that insinuates this evil and internalises the language of the witches. Macbeth s second hallucination is of the recently murdered Banquo at his coronation. The introduction of the ghost makes the play more exciting and dramatic because Macbeth can only see the ghost, this makes the audience feel involved and reveals his inner feelings of guilt. The ghost came to Macbeth to accuse him of Banquo s savage murder and to remind Macbeth that the throne will one day be sat upon by his descendants,
The table s full
Thou canst not say say I did it: never shake Thy gory locks at me
The dictionary describes a butcher as someone who kills for food and is a bloody and ferocious man. Macbeth s food is his lust for the crown and power which is ultimately his ambition, it fills him with evil as food does with goodness, for Macbeth it brings a whole new meaning to fair is foul and foul is fair . Eating goodness his bad for Macbeth but eating evil and ambition is good. I envisage a butcher as someone who kills animals or people for a job and has no feelings of guilt or remorse. The phrase this dead butcher implies that Macbeth has no conscience or feelings of guilt. I would argue that the mere fact that he has feelings of guilt proves that Malcolm s na ve interpretation of Macbeth is unjustified. The dramatic tension of the play is for Macbeth to battle with his conscience, which is his guilt, if not the play would simply be a blood bath of gore and murder. Macbeth s downfall is aided by his inner battle between ambition and guilt that leaves him feeling trapped. Macbeth fluctuates between his evil ambition and his guilt. His ambition and guilt manifest themselves as madness and resolute brutality. The pattern of Macbeth s manifestations of ambition and guilt present themselves in the image of a pendulum, his changing mentality is due to Macbeth s own deeds. For example, Macbeth s murder of Duncan leads to guilt. To rid himself of his guilt and possible threats he kills Banquo, then he acquires feelings of guilt again. This change between one extreme and another occurs thought the play until the end where Macbeth has escaped this interchangeable mentality and is stable again, another sign of the dramatic unity. The extent of Macbeth s guilt stretches to the point where he believes that all the murders will be avenged,
Blood will hath blood
Macbeth feels threatened by Fleance and later on by Macduff, this could be a reason why he murders them to ensure his security. Macbeth by this point is wading in blood . He cannot go back because he is in too deep, but going forward, into deeper blood, means more evil will arise, he is now trapped by his murders and conscience. Light and dark can no longer be distinguished,
Almost at odds with morning, which is which
This symbolises Macbeth s current situation of entrapment and could also be a metaphor of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth not being able to differentiate between good and evil. Macbeth s guilt extends beyond his daily life; he becomes tortured by bad dreams of Duncan s murder,
O full of scorpions is my mind
The themes of entrapment and sleep are used to illustrate Macbeth s guilty conscience and evil in his mind. Macbeth s bad dreams insinuates that he has a diseased mind and that he was once healthy and free which makes his downfall even more tragic. After the witches second set of prophecies Macbeth decides to be ruthless and brutal due to his self-awareness that pondering on the decision only causes him guilt,
from this very moment The very firstlings of my heart shall be The firstlings of my hand
Despite Macbeth s seemingly resolute statement it shows that he still has inner conflicts because he knows that his deeds lead him to feelings of guilt. Outwardly, this statement signifies a change to Macbeth s character. Whereas before he wanted darkness to hide his deeds, now he doesn t worry about murdering people.
At the start of the play Macbeth is described as a noble and valiant warrior who brandish d steel which smok d with bloody execution . Macbeth was a soldier who was used to killing people without any signs of his conscience affecting his ability to fight in battle. This is in contrast to the strong feelings of guilt he felt after murdering Duncan when he wondered if all great Neptune s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand . Macbeth s guilt stems from his own knowledge that the people he has slaughtered are innocent, harmless and the deeds are unnatural. But he is able to kill those that he fought against in battle because he does not know them on a personal level. It could then be argued that he was a butcher before he killed Duncan and because he showed feelings of guilt for the deaths of innocent people then he has become less of a butcher as the play progresses. Another view is that he is simply a valiant warrior at the start of the play and becomes a butcher as his ambition urges him on, but at the end of the play we see a return of the valiant warrior . This dramatic unity signifies that Macbeth has returned from his evil side and is the good, honourable Macbeth that we heard of at the beginning of the play.
At least we ll die with harness on our back
The very last thing we hear Macbeth say also extends his return from the dark side,
Before my body I throw my warlike shield; lay on, Macduff, And damn d be him that first cries, Hold, enough!
This change is emphasised when he shows that he has compassion and feelings, characteristics absent from a butcher, when he refuses to fight with Macduff,
But get thee back, my soul is too much charg d With blood of thine already
This illustrates his guilty conscience again because he feels that too much blood has been shed. This is a sign that Macbeth knows he took the road to evil to achieve his sweltering ambition and, as he looks back on it, he knows it was a mistake. Macbeth s first real signs of guilt, and hence his conscience, occur in Act 1 Scene 7. Macbeth wrestles with his conscience,
He s here in double trust: First, as I am kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then as his host, Who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself
Macbeth s early signs of guilt reflect his good nature because he appreciates Duncan s kingly qualities, and this is a virtue in Macbeth. Next in this soliloquy, Macbeth comes to a crossroads in his life where he can take one of two options: conscience or ambition. In this scene he worries about the consequences of the murder and the possibility of going to hell in the afterlife. Macbeth realises his vaulting ambition is great and he understands that he will suffer a big fall if he leaps too high. With Macbeth edging towards the route of ambition he feels that he can avoid going to hell for Duncan s murder,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We d jump the life to come
This vivid imagery presents hell as a river that Macbeth must cross to get to the other side that does not contain the tortures of hell for which Macbeth must pay for his earthly sins. Christians believe that their afterlife is spent in either Heaven or Hell depending how good or evil you are during your earthly life. If you commit evil deeds in your earthly life then you will be sent to hell to be punished for it. Another Christian concept is the battle with the Original Sin ; we must fight the burden of this to ensure we can go to heaven. This idea derives from the belief that Adam and Eve were the original sinners because they were tempted by the Devil and as descendants from Adam and Eve we still carry this burden. Macbeth s hope that he can escape hell by jumping over it illustrates his tragic flaw, his attempts to control fate which, by definition, cannot be controlled.
The witches appeal to Macbeth s ambition when they meet upon the moor. I would blame Macbeth for his downfall because he only hears what he wants to hear on the moor, he forgets the fact that Banquo will be Lesser than Macbeth but much greater and Not so happy, yet much happier . Macbeth chooses his vaulting ambition over his conscience and this leads him down the fiery path of evil. I would propose that he did not make this decision lightly because he deliberated whether he should do it and he knew the consequences would be great in Act 1 Scene 7. Macbeth s ambition leads him to make the gut-wrenching decision to murder Banquo to stop the inevitable from happening- losing his crown if the prophecies are to be believed. Before Banquo s murder Macbeth believes that his crowning has meant nothing because his children will not be Kings,
Upon my head they plac d a fruitless crown, And put a barren sceptre in my gripe, Thence to be wrench d with an unlineal hand, No son of mine succeeding
These images of infertility imply that Macbeth may as well be infertile because Banquo s sons are going to be kings. This is the start of Macbeth s panic to stop the inevitable from happening and is the earliest signs of Macbeth s nihilistic tendencies. Macbeth is thinking irrationally and naively because he is trapped, but in doing so presents his tragic flaw because he is going to try and kill Fleance and control fate that cannot be done. After Macbeth has heard the three apparitions he is confident, resolute and decisive yet he is still unwise. His ingenuousness is still visible because he believes that even if he commits murders quickly he will not feel any guilt. This is proved to be wrong at the end of the play when he feels guilty for ordering the murder of Macduff s family. Previously, Hecate recognised that his confidence would be his downfall,
Security is mortals chiefest enemy
This was validated as Macbeth did not anticipate that Macduff and Malcolm would return to fight him, he thought that killing Macduff s family was enough to save him. A sign of Macbeth s brutality is the needless murder of Macduff s family. Macbeth feels threatened by them and his ambition propels him to quash all that stand in his way and that confines him to being trapped like a rugged Russian bear . The unnecessary elimination of Macduff s family adds fire to Malcolm s claim that Macbeth is a butcher. This is by far the worst deed that Macbeth commits throughout the play. The only argument for Macbeth not being called a butcher for these murders is his feelings at the end of the play when he refuses to fight Macduff because too much of his family s blood has been shed already.
Macbeth s tragic flaw is his mistaken belief that he can control fate which, by definition, cannot be done. Macbeth s attempts to control fate leave him attempting to operate in a spiralling escalating series of events that he cannot get out of. He sinks lower and lower until his only option is to continue. The witches represent the physical embodiment of evil in the play and tempt Macbeth by appealing to his ambition. The witches prophecies and their language are often ambiguous so we cannot tell whether they have any real power or not. Macbeth believes in the witches, they echo his own thoughts and ambition and tempt him with their prophecies. After each set of prophecies Macbeth is resolute and confident. The first set of prophecies shocks Macbeth and their influence is clear straight away as Banquo notices Macbeth is rapt withal . The witches appealed to Macbeth s ambition and they effected him so much that he wanted to know more about his future,
Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more
After receiving the news of being named Thane of Cawdor , which was not in fact a prophecy because he had already been given this title by Duncan but he just did not know it, Macbeth started to believe what the witches said,
to be king stands not within the prospect of belief
But he believes murder is beyond him and is just a horrible imagining , and murder is fantastical .
Although the witches have used their powers of persuasion on Macbeth s ambition, supernatural soliciting , they have not really told him his future. I would suggest that the last prophecy comes true because they appealed to his ambition and that they knew that this would give him the courage to kill Duncan. In view of this, I would argue that the witches have no power but are an extended metaphor for the evil in Macbeth. How could Macbeth call upon evil if he did not know it? I would also suggest that they are in the play to keep James I happy and is a fail-safe method to make sure the play was performed because he believed in witches. Furthermore, their lack of power is enhanced in Act 3 Scene 4 when Macbeth realises there is no way back because he is stepp d in so far ,
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak
This is similar to the third apparition who said that Macbeth would be safe until Great Birnam Wood came to high Dunsinane Hill . This reinforces the idea that the witches have no magical powers of prophecy. But without the witches the play would be less spooky, dramatic and exciting. Their concoction of pieces of animals in their cauldron symbolises the chaos in Scotland and Macbeth s erratic emotional state. The witches also speak in rhyming couplets, which gives the impression that a magic spell is being chanted and, together with their odd appearance and evil looks, makes the play more exhilarating to watch because the audience believes that Macbeth is under their spell. At the time when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth , many people in society believed that witches existed on earth as the devil s agents, sent to tempt us to sin like the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in Eden. But witches were really nothing more than women who were mentally disturbed, behaved in an eccentric way or had an odd appearance. These women were used as scapegoats for unusual or unfortunate occurrences and anything else that society could not explain. James I was the king when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth . He implicitly believed in witches, and even wrote a book called Demonology about them.
Macbeth s rule as King brings tyranny and brutality to Scotland,
Each new morn New Widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven on the face
Under Macbeth s rule fair is foul and foul is fair, in other words to do good is bad and to do bad is good. Ironically, Macbeth echoed this at the beginning of the play and it has now come back to haunt him and his country. Scotland is described as being diseased under Macbeth s rule and the country in chaos,
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash Is added to her wounds
This personification of Scotland also represents the bloodshed that Macbeth has caused in Scotland. Chaos spreads its way through nature as well, King Duncan s horses fight against their training and hawks are killed by their prey. The shriek of women is an all too familiar sound by the end of the play, so much so that they no longer shake Macbeth. He has brought cruelty to Scotland which is a country Almost afraid to know itself . Shakespeare introduced a new philosophy of kingship in the play that culminated when Malcolm announced,
What I am truly, is thine and my poor country s to command
Shakespeare s new concept of the Old World and New World could have caused a furore but were imbedded so subtly that it would be hard to imagine James I noticing. In the Old World the King had a divine right because God placed him on the throne; being disloyal to the King was the worst possible offence and beheading was the punishment for it. In the New World, if the King rules tyrannically and ineffectively then the state is allowed to be disloyal because the stability of the country is more important than being loyal to the King. The concepts of the New World and Old World are relevant to Macbeth. In the Old World, under Duncan s rule, Macbeth was disloyal to Duncan and committed treason. But under Macbeth s rule, in the New World, his ineffective and brutal reign has led to the downfall of the state. The New World allows people, like Malcolm and Macduff, to commit treason because the state is more important than being loyal to an ineffective King. Macbeth s kingly qualities are lost as he becomes king. He had all the qualities necessary for a king before his ambition set in; his wasted qualities makes his downfall tragic and also ironic because as he becomes king he looses his kingly qualities. Macbeth shows a lack of temperance that is essential for a good king; his ambition always overcomes his conscience. In Shakespeare s time Kings were believed to have been put on the throne by God; they had a divine right to be there. Lady Macbeth s incurable illness reinforces the idea of Scotland being diseased under Macbeth s reign and because he was not put there by God he has no divine right so he cannot cure her. This is in contrast to the good noble English King who, with a touch of his hand, can cure wretched souls . God has given him this healing benediction , heavenly gift of prophecy . This gift for healing was thought to be hereditary and it reinforces the idea that the King is placed on the throne by God to preserve good in the world. This is in contract to Macbeth who is plagued by bad dreams and cannot rid himself of them, thus again implying that Macbeth is not the rightful King. Macbeth s bad dreams are ironic because at the start of the play Lady Macbeth she revealed her husband s character,
Thou wouldst be great, Art thou without ambition, but without The illness should attend it.
Lady Macbeth says that Macbeth catches evil, as someone might catch a disease. The play shows how his symptoms develop, until there is no cure but death. It is also ironic for Lady Macbeth because she succumbs to the same illness which doctors could not even cure and eventually led her to death.
Macbeth has no justifiable reasons for killing Duncan when he hears why the murderers have helped him. The murderers are driven to kill for Macbeth because of their circumstances. They have both fallen on bad times and need money to survive. Macbeth s reason is simply ambition and this is nothing like the troubles that the murderers were forced into killing for. This would seem to make Malcolm s comment justifiable in some respects because it appears that ambition is no reason for killing someone, but the fact that he had guilty feelings impedes Macbeth from being a butcher in a literal sense. The murderers take a nihilistic approach to life and are bitter with the world. Macbeth by comparison still has the belief that he can control fate and is optimistic that all he needs to do is eliminate opposition to achieve a fruitful future. By the end of the play Macbeth finally accepts that he cannot control fate, this leads to nihilistic tendencies which stems from his belief in the prophecies. Macbeth feels lonely at the end of the play; he has realised that his time is up,
I have liv d long enough: my way of life Is fall n into the sere, the yellow leaf; And that which should accompany old age, As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have
Macbeth realises that his actions have denied himself the good things that come with old age, and only curses are in store for him. This makes the audience feel some sorrow for Macbeth. He then feels that there is no point in life if you cannot control it, he realises his efforts have been worthless and life is only a fleeting thing,
Life s but a walking shadow
Throughout this speech Macbeth makes nihilistic references to life being pointless and irrelevant, he even feels that life is as meaningless as a idiot s tale,
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing
His final realisation of not being able to control fate leads to complete nihilistic thoughts, this is revealed as he insensitively reacts to the news that his wife is dead,
She would have died hereafter
At the end of this scene Macbeth realises that his nemesis, none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth , is almost upon him. When he puts on his armour to go and die like an honourable warrior it signifies a return of the old honourable, noble warrior that we saw and heard of at the start of the play and the dramatic unity of the play is complete.
Nothing motivates Macbeth like ambition. His ambition is not strong enough on its own so he must be evil to fulfil it, but does this make him a butcher? In the literal sense Macbeth is not a butcher. This is proved by the simple fact that he has feelings of guilt and remorse for the murders he committed. But I believe that at times he is a butcher because of his brutal and savage decisions to murder Banquo, his dear friend, and Macduff s family. Macbeth commits these murders simply to eliminate any possible threats to his crown in order to prolong his time as king and therefore fulfil his ambition, this is ignorant and na ve. He is ignorant due to his continued belief that he could control fate, which is ultimately his tragic flaw. Macbeth s lack of morality, and child-like naivety, led him to believe that divorcing himself from the murders would prevent him from guilt, this is what makes him a moral coward. Macbeth knew that the deeds he committed were evil but it is his ambition that urged him on. Macbeth, up to the point where he hears or realises the murders, is a butcher in every sense in my opinion. His resolute feelings of murder, with no second thoughts whilst committing it, make him a butcher. The judgement by Malcolm came at a time when he was installed as the new king and I imagine his comment of Macbeth would have been influenced by memories of his father, Duncan. In the end Macbeth s good points far outweigh his bad and his true goodness shines through at the end of the play when he leaves the stage as he entered it, as a noble warrior. The times when Macbeth was a butcher , in every aspect, is such a small percentage that I believe this dead butcher would be an inaccurate and unfair epitaph for someone who spent most of his life fighting loyally and as and valiant, noble warrior for the king and whose only character flaw was to respond to his ambition.