Friday, February 22, 2008

Macbeth Act 2: Absolute Power

Well, after reading this act, I'd think twice about spending a night at Macbeth's castle. Sure, the hospitality is fine, food is great, and there's even a room for your bodyguards to hang out. But there are ghostly daggers floating, and watch out for that late night drink...

The opening of Act 2 shows how Macbeth is thought of as a good person, loyal soldier and all-around good guy. Banquo, Macbeth's best friend, tells our anti-hero that King Duncan has not only rewarded Macbeth with a promotion to Thane of Cawdor, but also given MacB a big diamond for his Lady. Banquo is still troubled by what the Weird Sisters said, but Macbeth says he never thinks about it.

Do you believe him?

When Banquo leaves, Macbeth sees a ghostly dagger, pointing the way to Duncan's chamber. Where did this come from? Is it a "dagger of the mind, a false creation/proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?" Or, is this some supernatural vision, sent by supernatural powers to prod Macbeth to murder?

Macbeth alludes to the presence of witchcraft in this passage. Is he acting on his own, or are there other forces propelling him to kill Duncan?

After Duncan's murder, Macbeth is so shaken up that he forgets to leave the dagger behind. It's part of the big frame-up, and Lady Macbeth is a little upset with him.

Men. You can't get them to follow the simplest of directions.

Now Lady Macbeth has blood on her hands, literally and figuratively.

She realizes that her husband is going to have to do some pretty good acting to cover themselves. What does she tell Macbeth to do? What does Lady Macbeth do to further increase the dramatic reactions to Duncan's death?

Scene iii shows another example of Shakepearean wordplay. It's interesting how Shakespeare uses minor character to provide some comic relief in this scene, while staying true to the plot and overall tone of the work. See if you can find specific examples of this in the drunken porter's dialogue.


Carly said...

At the beginning of Act 3, Scene 5 the editor's note says that most scholars and editors do not believe that Shakespeare wrote 3.5, 4.1.39-43, and 4.1.141-48 because the presentation of the witches is different than that of the rest of the play. Maybe I'm missing something, but can someone explain what is meant by "presentation?" Also, if Shakespeare didn't write these passages, then who do they think did? Did anyone find anymore information on this?

Carly said...

Has anyone else noticed the parrallels between the storm in "King Lear" and the storm in "Macbeth." In "King Lear" it is during the storm that Lear's madness becomes evident. In "Macbeth" there is a storm that night that Macbeth murders Duncan. Following Banquo's murder Macbeth begins to demonstrate signs of paranoia (ex. talking to Banquo's ghost at the feast). I wonder if other plays by Shakespeare featuring storms have crazy characters.

Carly said...

Oops I made a typo in the last comment. Parallel only has one R...

Carly said...

Okay I'm on a roll tonight ... Has anyone noticed a recognizable pattern for scenes ending in rhymes? I initially thought that rhymes that ended scenes were always spoken by Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, or the witches but Act 2, Scene 4 ends with a rhyme spoken by the Old Man. Then I considered that rhymes ended scenes concerning murder but that didn't fit either.

Byrne's English12AP said...

Carly- great comments! One of the things scholars notice about Macbeth is that although there are elements found in Shakespeare's other works (storms in KL,for example) these seem to be supernatural, and driven by forces the characters can't control.

Another of Shakespeare's plays featuring a storm is The Tempest. In that play, the storm is a catalyst for primary action and premise of the play.

As far as the witches go, A contemporary of Shakespeare's, Thomas Middleton, had written a play called "The Witches". Some of the scenes and songs from that play were incorporated into Macbeth because they were popular with audiences at the time of performance.

So Shakespeare wasn't just a literary icon, he was a commercial success as well.

megan said...

Maybe man doesn't control the supernatural forces in this play, but he can definitely control how he reacts to them and thus regulate how much power they actually have!

When the Weird sisters first give Macbeth and Banquo their fortunes, they are dangling power in front of each of their noses. Macbeth is exposed to the prospect of becoming king, while Banquo sees the possibility of fathering a great royal bloodline. Both could pursue the fulfillment of their fortunes by killing Duncan, yet only Macbeth does so. Why? Because he's power-hungry and weak enough to give Lady Macbeth's words precedence over his own morality. Although tempted, Banquo chooses not act on his own ambitions, which plague his dreams but cannot sway his reason. Unlike Macbeth, he doesn't let the planted seed of evil grow, thus thrwarting the witches' plans for amusement. Go free will!

Or, maybe Banquo would have started his own murderous quest for power if Macbeth had not cut his life short:)

But no. You have to have the proper sunlight and soil conditions to make a seed of evil grow. Macbeth provided them, and Banquo didn't.

Byrne's English12AP said...

Megan, I like your seed/soil analogy!

I have read that Macbeth's fatal flaw was his "vaulting ambition" which caused him to begin his murderous campaign.

But would he have done this without his wife's encouragement, and the supernatural signs & omens?

Is Macbeth good inside, or is he evil?

vanessa said...

i am assuming that I forgot how to post a comment, because my comment is not appearing. I pressed publish circa 50 trillion times. sorry if all of the copies are actually posted

vanessa said...

wait a second, the former comment worked-all right then..
If twins with similar tendencies are separated at birth, the environmental gap between them will mold their personalities and physical appearances in different ways. Although Macbeth has natural goodness within, his exposure to the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth’s influence triggers his metamorphosis from a valiant warrior to a monster. Even when we consider Friedrich Nietzche’s quote, however, Macbeth is not evil. He is simply led astray—far far astray—due to his hubris. Driving Macbeth’s ambition was his concern over his reputation. From the Captain’s description of how Macbeth created another “Golgotha”, the audience realizes that Macbeth doesn’t kill to win; rather, he kills to acquire prestige. In fact, Macbeth’s explains to his wife that he does not want to kill Duncan because “he hath honored me of late, and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people…” (i,vii). Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth knows just how to get under his husband’s skin: accuse him of being a coward and assert that he has lost his manhood. For Macbeth, any masculine degradation would be unendurable. In addition to Lady Macbeth, sorcery and incantations underhandedly motivate Macbeth. For example, perhaps the bloody dagger that hovered and taunted Macbeth was the working of the Weird Sisters instead of a hallucination. The aforementioned sources coupled with Macbeth’s hubris veiled his natural goodness. Macbeth’s subsequent murder of the two chamberlains was also not born from evil intent but rather originates from a desperate attempt to preserve his reputation (ensure that Macbeth would not be blamed for Duncan’s murder). Therefore, Macbeth’s turning point occurs when he murdered Banquo, a friend whom he trusted. Note, however, that Macbeth ordered three murderers to kill Banquo instead of using his own hands. Although Macbeth is a sinful murderer, he still can not be deemed evil. It is now important to look at the evolution of Macbeth’s character. After he orders the three murderers to kill Banquo, Macbeth forces himself into self denial by dehumanization:
Come, seeling night,/ scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day/ and with the bloody and invisible hand/ cancel and tear to pieces that great bond/ which keeps me pale (iii, iii).
In other words, he removes himself from the responsibility of his sinful deeds and becomes a sort of sinister monster. If he were evil, Macbeth would enjoy murdering everyone. He would savor the blood in his gilded, diamond-laden chalice. However, Macbeth instead decides to lead a life of misery which escalates with each life that he kills. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believes that morality is defined by the categorical imperative or one’s perception of what is right and wrong. Through Macbeth’s transformation, he blinds himself from morality. Although this dehumanizing action is immoral within itself, the subsequent murders do not make Macbeth an evil person. Are Roger Chillingworth, Jekyll/Hyde, and Victor Frankenstein evil? No. These main characters, like Macbeth, are dynamic. Although they change for the worse, their transformations all occur due to inexorable events. In the absence of negative circumstances, the aforementioned characters would not be portrayed as diabolical sinners. What I can not understand is why is reputation/ ambition Macbeth’s fatal flaw? Why can’t it be a mere quirk/ foible of Macbeth’s? After all, Macbeth believes that life is ephemeral and that he will suffer consequences in his afterlife. Given his beliefs, why can’t Macbeth resist fleeting happiness?
As Macbeth states in Act iii, scene ii:
“Better be with the dead…than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well. Treason has done his worst; nor steel nor poison, malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing can touch him further…”

megan said...

Okay. Here's a counterargument:) Let's look at the murder of Duncan specifically to see if Macbeth is evil or merely manipulated.

If we define an "evil man" as one who commits some crime that he believes is wrong, and has no justification that redeems himself by his own moral standards, then Macbeth is clearly evil. Macbeth acknowledges that killing Duncan is particularly despicable, as far as murders go, because (1) Duncan is a kindly, just, and admirable leader, (2) Macbeth has sworn an oath of loyalty to him, and (3) Macbeth owes him protection, being his host. So in Macbeth's world, it's definitively wrong to kill Duncan. That's why, directly after the witches' prophecy, he decides that he will NOT pursue the kingship based on the cryptic predictions that he's just heard. Macbeth vows, "If chance will have me king, why chance may / crown me / Without my stir" (1.4.157-159).

But he kills Duncan anyway? Why? What happens after the prophecy and before the murder that makes him change his mind?

Well, his wife gives him a good-talking to. She wittily mocks his manhood, reminds him of the power and glory he could gain by killing Duncan, then presents a plan for doing so. That's all it takes for Macbeth to go from saying, on lines 51-52, "I dare do all that may become a man. / Who dares do more is none," to scheming on line 85, about how he will wipe the chamberlains with blood. All it takes to persuade Macbeth to murder a kind, honorable man are some harsh words from his wife. Now, in itself, do a few biting comments provide enough motivation to convince a "good man" to commit a vile act that he himself considers foul? Of course not!

TBC after a snack:)

megan said...

So there must be something within Macbeth that makes him more receptive to Lady Macbeth than to his own conscience, which had spoken before. That something is probably blind ambition, who must love to listen to Lady Macbeth's assurances, and a proud self-love, who must hate her mocking criticisms. These weaknesses, in overriding his scruples and leading him into murdering Duncan, make Macbeth evil. And Macbeth's subsequent guilt reinforces the idea that he is even evil by his own standards.

I don't know anything about Kant, but if we can judge a man's evilness by his own perceptions of right and wrong, Macbeth fails pretty spectacularly.