Macbeth and the tyranny of unchecked power

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The month of May marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. His harrowing tragedy, Macbeth, depicts the fall of a once valiant general into a paranoid, murderous tyrant. In the play, Shakespeare warns his audience about the destructive force of unchecked power. He shows that tyrants abhor freedom; unless resisted, they boldly destroy anyone who thinks or behaves differently. The lessons are as fresh today as they were in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in c.1606. He based the play on the history of the British monarchy recorded in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (2nd ed. 1587). However, the playwright modified the Chronicles’ historical account in deference to his patron, King James I. Before uniting the British under a single crown in 1603, the monarch was known as King James VI of Scotland. King James claimed that his lineage could be traced to the Scottish ruler, Banquo. Unlike the Chronicles’ depiction of Banquo as an accomplice to King Duncan’s murder by Macbeth, Shakespeare’s character remains loyal to his ruler. Literary critic William Empson noted, “Shakespeare could not possibly have intended to show to James I the supposed founder of his line as a criminal.”

The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth by Johann Heinrich Füssli (late 18th century) (Wikipedia)

The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth by Johann Heinrich Füssli (late 18th century) (Wikipedia)

The accommodation was a minor one, and in no way diluted Shakespeare’s compelling portrayal of corruption. The play is a cautionary tale that moves audiences to what Aristotle calls “terror and pity” at the protagonist’s downfall. As literary critic Frank Kermode put it, “Macbeth is, for all its brevity, his most intensive study of evil at work in the individual and in the world at large.”

One of the ways that Shakespeare shows “evil at work” is in the relative ease with which Macbeth is led astray and succumbs to his own vanity. After three witches delude him into thinking he is invincible, he ruthlessly pursues his quest for absolute rule. With the complicity of his conniving wife, Macbeth kills his king, usurps his throne, murders his real and imagined foes, and launches Scotland into a brutal civil war. Subsequently, both he and Lady Macbeth meet terrible ends: she commits suicide and he is beheaded in battle.

What makes Macbeth convincing — and relatable — is that he is not evil through and through.  Shakespeare presents him as a courageous warrior whose conscience is torn by his betrayal of the king. Macbeth’s moral disposition is variegated, and his remorse makes him all the more believable. As Kermode observes, “Macbeth’s humanity is . . . represented as a condition we share. It is, of course, imperfect.”

Yet despite his guilt after killing King Duncan, Macbeth does not amend his ways. Instead, he commits additional murders to consolidate his power, all the while rationalizing his motives. Shakespeare illustrates the common human reaction: after committing a transgression, people either repent and change, or they stubbornly justify themselves and continue their wrongdoing. Coleridge frames this latter response in a pithy way. “Could he [Macbeth] have everything he wanted, he would rather have it innocently – ignorant, as alas! how many are! that he who wishes a temporal end for itself does in truth will the means – hence the danger of indulging in fancies.”

Although good triumphs over evil, Shakespeare suggests it often follows a thorny, circuitous path that entails great sacrifice.

Through the witches’ cry, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” Shakespeare succinctly describes how evil masquerades as good. But he also shows that those who justify their errors still bear the impact. When Lady Macbeth descends into lunacy, she quite literally sees her complicity in King Duncan’s murder as an indelible spot that she cannot wash off her hand.

In her lament, “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!” Shakespeare repeats the words “Out, out” to underscore Lady Macbeth’s frantic efforts to cleanse her conscience. He later uses the same words as a mnemonic device when Macbeth repeats them allusively on learning of his wife’s suicide:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

Lady Macbeth believed she could control men’s destinies. But in the end, she was like a brief candle which, though it could burn, eventually burned out. Her life extinguished, she could no longer give light and became instead “a walking shadow.” And for all her vainglorious attempts to rule over others, she disappears to be “heard no more.”

At the end of the play, peace and order are restored. Malcolm, the new King of Scotland, promises to rule benevolently. Although good triumphs over evil, Shakespeare suggests it often follows a thorny, circuitous path that entails great sacrifice. He also distinguishes between a legitimate ruler who places the interests of his people above his own, and the despotic, egocentric leader who represses and abuses the populace. Moreover, Shakespeare implies that despotic authority cannot be rectified with passive complicity, but has to be met with resistance. Had good men not stood up to Macbeth, he would have continued unabated.

The Ghost of Banquo (1855), by Théodore Chassériau. (Wikipedia)

The Ghost of Banquo (1855), by Théodore Chassériau. (Wikipedia)

How does a play written over 400 years ago apply today? Very easily. The 20th century was the bloodiest in history, due in large part to repressive regimes with unchecked authority. They came from both sides of the political spectrum, from left-wing totalitarian communists to right-wing fascist dictatorships. What did they have in common? Like all tyrants, they suppressed every challenge to their ideological hegemony. Under the guise of knowing what is best for people, they ruthlessly silenced anyone who disagreed with them.

Every new generation needs to learn about the paradoxical power and fragility of freedom. On the one hand, freedom is powerful because it unleashes the potential of individuals to develop their talents and gifts for “the pursuit of happiness,” while respecting the common good. On the other, freedom is fragile because it is easily lost when people are ignorant, hostile, or indifferent to fundamental rights. A democratic society that ceases to be pluralistic by repressing divergent opinions, is in danger of succumbing to tyrants like Macbeth.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].