Thesis: In Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, the justifiable political motivationsthat the
II. Shakespeare's Macbeth as two of Holinshed's passages
III. Shakespeare only suggests that Duncan is failure as king
IV. Macbeth's right to the throne
V. Shakespeare's need to alter motivation
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centered on language while history deals with action. In Macbeth, the poetic language
produces, "...a vision of shapeless and unarticulable evil lodged far inside the practical
world of wars and titles and inheritance, at a point where the constraints of custom and
culture can hardly penetrate..."(Hunter 138). In Macbeth, language that deals with an
evil ambition makes this tragedy very different from the historical records. In Shakespeare's
tragedy Macbeth, the justifiable political motivations that the historical Macbeth had for
killing Duncan are reduced to vague inferences so the assassination can be the result of
Macbeth's tragic flaw.
concerning the elimination of Kings Duff and Duncan of Scotland, he chose to convert
history to tragedy: " Added to the account of Macbeth's usurpation are details borrowed
from the story of King Duff and Donwald, which records a similar murder of a king by his
thane, with the thane's wife as the evil counselor" (Holzknecht 244). The Macbeth in
Scottish history is a very different character from the one Shakespeare designs for the
Elizabethan stage because Shakespeare wanted a dramatic murder scene that would
turn the usurption into a hideous crime.
careful to minimize the blood relationship, calling Macbeth many things, but rarely a
cousin to the king. When Duncan says "O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman! (I.ii.24) , the
word "cousin" appears to be more of a term of loyalty or devotion than one of blood
Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth refer to the king as their cousin: " The play deals with the
overthrow of the balance of royalty, with the development of all evil implicit in that overthrow,
and with the restoration of natural order under Duncan's rightful successors" (Berger SC
340). Holinshed records that Macbeth had as much right to the throne as Duncan since their
grandfather had been king before; yet Shakespeare clearly avoided this fact to minimize
Macbeth's claim to the throne.
history. In the actual Macbeth episode from Holinshed's history, Macbeth eliminated
Duncan and ruled Scotland peacefully: "...commendable laws Makbeth caused to be put as
then in vse, gouerning the realme for the space of ten years in equall iustice" (Holinshed
129). The act of regicide was justified and supported by the thanes of Scotland; however,
Macbeth's paranoia caused him to become a harsh ruler, and he was finally overthrown by
Makduffe and Malcolme after a seventeen year reign. This segment also included the weird
sisters' predictions which Shakespeare uses as a chief means of motivation. Shakespeare
added Donwald's murder of King Duff to the Macbeth story in order to provide an exciting
plot for the play's assassination, changing few features except the names. Donwald,
Macbeth's and Duncan's actual grandfather, had few excuses for killing King Duff and was
troubled by sleepless guilt: "...to himselfe he seemed most vnhappie, as he that could not
but still liue in continuall feare, least his wicked practise...should come to light..." (Holinshed
125). Shakespeare transfers Donwald's guilt to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and this
becomes the means of their tragic destruction. Macbeth's rise to power is motivated by
ambition alone in Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare eliminated some historical details like
Macbeth's seventeen year reign and provided vague suggestions for Macbeth's additional
motivations. "Holinshed ... had stressed Duncan's 'feeble and slothful administration'
years of his reign" (Ribner 59). While Holinshed shows Duncan as a weak king who was
leading his nation to defeat, Shakespeare only provides inferences concerning poor
leadership, to be discussed in greater detail in section III.
answer to the political pressures from the English court. " It would be dangerous to
conceive, or to present on the stage of James's London,...the story of a nobleman who
moved by human passions only, by human motives, could plot and execute this ultimate
crime. James, like Duncan, was legitimate King of Scotland" (Sisson 117). Any suggestion of
a justified usurpation on the English stage could cause the writer to lose his head.
Shakespeare needed to alter the history because the real Macbeth had a strong claim to the
throne; because an exciting murder scene should be violent; and because the king, James I,
would be sure to object to any staged affront to the divine right of kings.
Shakespeare’s division of good and evil causes Duncan to be viewed as good, only because
he is the king. "...the hullucinatory vision this play gives, of a world polarized between Good
and Evil, where kings...have power principally as vessels of Grace...all makes merely
historical focus inadequate" (Hunter 136). Shakespeare allow the audience to view Duncan
as a weak king in numerous instances, but the play’s language offers little criticism of the
king that Macbeth kills.
thanes, Shakespeare only suggests that Duncan has a problem with his Cawder and
Macbeth. It becomes very ironic when Duncan says, "There is no art / To find the mind's
construction in the face" (I.iv.11-12). Duncan places his trust in Cawder and nearly
loses his country; he places his trust in Macbeth and loses his life. Clearly, a
view by saying, "His [Duncan's] kingship is no less shaky than his control of the facts of his
subject's loyalty" ( SC 343). Shakespeare's audience easily overlooks this understated
development while Holinshed stresses it. Shakespeare's
audience has no clue for the reasons behind Cawder's treachery. As previously shown,
Duncan is surprised by his behavior. Instead of taking time to consider Cawder's
replacement, Duncan states " ...with his former title greet Macbeth" (I.ii.65) and "What he
hast lost, noble Macbeth has won" (I.ii.67). This act is considered a serious mistake since
Duncan has replaced Cawder with another dangerous man: [these excerpts form] " a set of
possibilities--for treachery as well as valor--built into the role of Thane, or into the promotion
from a less to a more eminent thaneship which brings one politically closer to the king"
(Berger SC 343). Shakespeare's plot, through this writer's typical time compression, implies
that an effective king would not make the same mistake twice, but once again underplays
which Duncan comes close to losing Scotland. In doing so, Shakespeare shows
rather than tells that Duncan has failed in his duty. This blunder by Duncan is nearly over as
the play starts, diminishing Duncan's degree of mismanagement and focusing
on the Macbeth's great leadership skills. Still, "Power is what Macbeth seeks least
of all, if by power we mean the possession of control or command over others, or
anything to do with influence or authority..." (Morris 347). Shakespeare develops a Macbeth
who is more concerned with an abstract crown than he is with the leadership
of his fellow Scots. As soon as the war ends in the play, so do references to Macbeth's
leadership ability, something Holinshed stressed. Bradley calls Duncan "...mild, just, and
beloved, but now too old to lead his army" (351). Holinshed shows Duncan as a king who
has passed the time when he can defend his country. Shakespeare’s failure to
behind the historical Macbeth’s motivation for usurption.
clues to support that Macbeth's right to the throne. While Morris said in the last section that
Macbeth did not seek power, there are some suggestions that he would make a better king
due to the respect he possesses over the other nobles. Holinshed writes "...the people
wished the inclinations and maners of these two cousins to haue beene so tempered and
interchangeablie bestowed betwixt them" (126). In times of invasion, it would be clear which
man the Scots would want as king; and, again, Shakespeare shows rather than tells: "...we
imagine him [Macbeth] as a great warrior, somewhat masterful, rough, and abrupt, a man to
inspire some fear and much admiration. He was thought 'honest,' or honorable; he was
trusted, apparently, by everyone..."(Bradley 351). When Shakespeare adapts these
features in his play, Macbeth the soldier in Act I only "seems" to deserve to be king.
captain's glowing descriptions are highly effective indirect characterization:"Macbeth is a
soldier, professionally trained to kill his enemies and notably successful in doing so"(Morris
348). The captain's words could never apply to Duncan who stands behind the lines, out of
sight of the battle, and away from the danger.
should be king? If Scotland needs a soldier as king, it is something the reader must assume
because Shakespeare's Macbeth "... never claims that he has any right to the throne, nor
does he assert that Duncan is a usurper, weak, or in any way inadequate (Morris 348).
Again, Macbeth's right to the throne is shown but never clearly stated.
promotion to Thane of Cawder may not have been enough a of a reward. The
Duncan's murder. While the reader cannot see what Malcolm has done to deserve this honor,
the fact that the captain saved his life, "This is the sergeant/ Who like a good and hardy
soldier fought/'Gainst my captivity" (I.ii.3-5), is enough to indicate that he is no equal to
Macbeth. Berger suggests that Duncan's judgment in promoting Malcolm is sound, but
Shakespeare leaves the insightful reader enough evidence to determine if Macbeth
deserves to be king, but it is obvious that Shakespeare plants only seeds of ambition in the
dialogue. "The tendency of late, in criticism as upon the stage, has been to accept this
preparation of Macbeth's mind and nature for temptation. Such an interpretation is in harmony
with the conception with tragedy as the outcome of the tragic flaw in character, the flaw here
being ambition" (Sisson 116). Reader and theater audience hear an ambitious, guilt-
consumed Macbeth. If Macbeth is given Holinshed’s support in his claim for the crown,
then Shakespeare’s tragedy must fall apart.
motivation behind the assassination. By Act V, all Macbeth has left is his ability as a soldier
"Macbeth is increasingly isolated and dishonored, reduced to the iron core of his nature as a
heroic warrior"(Morris 347). The fact that Duncan was a bad king is long forgotten by this
point in Macbeth's brutal reign.
ambition, which is something that does not exist in the historical developments.
make a series of wrong decisions:
The historical Macbeth was able to rule Scotland for ten productive years while the tragic Macbeth's reign begins to crumble almost immediately.
bad king; they only reveal regret, grief, and paranoia concerning the crime. Like Donwald,
Macbeth cannot sleep because of guilt and fear; but, eventually, he finds a way to live with
the crime because he feels a
The adaptation of Donwald's scenes of guilt creates a monster, one who has
murdered for personal gain, betraying king, friends, and country.
terms of psychology rather than history. Macbeth's decision-making process becomes a
center of attention. " Macbeth seeks not the kingdom of God but the kingdom
Macbeth as England is in Shakespeare's Histories"(Morris 346). It seems that Macbeth
wants to be king simply because the chance comes within his grasp. Morris adds to the
description of the apolitical Macbeth: "...indeed, there is no real political dimension to
Macbeth's thinking. Above all, there is no sense that for him the nation, the kingdom, has any
value in itself." (Morris 351). Shakespeare's alteration of history produces a Macbeth who is
directed by the wills of wife and witches into making a terrible mistake; he is certainly no
Cassius nor Claudius. When Macbeth’s motive of ambition is established, the poetic
language of a tragedy emerges.
hoarse raven, the thickening light, the crow making wing, the babe plucked from the breast,
the dagger in the air, the ghost, the bloody hands--this ancient murder has become an object
of strongly fixed emotive value" (Wimsatt 39). The deed is evil and unnatural, but not
Once Shakespeare eliminates the political reasons for regicide, all that is left in the character motivation is misguided ambition.
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