Although Macbeth’s reaction may
cause some audiences to empathise and pity his internal conflict, through
closely examining Macbeth’s character, it becomes apparent that his hesitation
is not due to virtuous repugnance, rather moral cowardice and a selfish fear of
retribution. We see him speaking to Lady Macbeth about the consequences of his
opinions from all sorts of people,
would be worn now in their newest gloss
cast aside so soon”.
Macbeth is solely concerned with
his own image after the death of the King. This, in lieu of the timing of
performance, was possibly Shakespeare’s allusion to the 1605 Gunpowder plot. Shakespeare
uses this quote as an allegory for England and Scotland. He uses the character
of Macbeth and his downfall to highlight and dramatize the consequents of
rebelling against the monarchy. He presents “all sorts of people” (England and
Scotland) as a united front, and offers Macbeth as an antithesis for the
monarch, someone who creates an unstable government and threatens to break the
Great Chain of Being.
One of the key political concerns that existed at the time
Shakespeare was writing was with the concept of Kingship, and the qualities a
king should hold. Although the first completed translation was not published until
1640, Machiavelli’s The Prince was
known by reputation in Shakespeare’s England, thirty-four years after the
earliest performances of Macbeth. His logical pragmatism was assumed to oppose
all notions of morality, his name representing the “diabolical” elements of
political expediency. In Macbeth, our
protagonist is portrayed as a man that is filled with a “vaulting ambition”1.
He violates the Chain of Being by murdering Duncan, assumed to be the closest
man in rank to God, to claim the throne. The play ends, however, by Macduff brandishing
Macbeth’s “cursed head”2,
another indication that murder and betrayal are not as expedient as they first
appear. Whilst this could be a show of support for James, as it highlights the
fatal consequences of rejecting the new monarch, if we see Macbeth as a representation
of James, one could infer that Shakespeare was covertly using his play to suggest
James step down from the throne.
Shakespeare also references the concept of Kingship through “king-becoming
graces” in Act 4. Malcolm recognises that a long-term resolution to peace for Scotland
is a king who rules with the virtues of Thomist moral theology, with the virtue
of reason, and delights “No less in truth than life”. A King should have
“… Justice, verity,
Devotion, patience, courage
To be fit to govern Scotland.
Shakespeare was very careful that nothing in Macbeth would counter King James’
political views. Along with his views on politics, Macbeth also pays homage to James’ religious beliefs, containing strong
Biblical imagery. One of King James’s great passions was Scripture, culminating
in the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. The concept of “morality” is
based firmly on the theology of the principal virtues, and on the belief, that
evil is the perversion of goodness. The medieval Church based its formulation
of “virtue” on the Christianising of the classical virtues by Augustine, and
the writings of Plato and Aristotle. In its simplest form, Macbeth is a play about evil which is given dramatic shape by a man
who gives his soul to the devil. The power of evil, its pervasiveness, “is
thrown into relief by a vivid pattern of references to Scripture”3.
Macbeth is set in Christendom; hence
the values of Christianity predominate. Act 4, Scene 3, at the court of the Edward
the Confessor, is the most explicitly Christian in the tragedy. However, it is not
isolated: just when the power of evil is overcome, the tone and vocabulary of
this scene reaffirm the spirit in which the drama of Macbeth has been unfolded.
In the first act, after the first prophecy from the weird sisters has been fulfilled
Jack, p. 178