Belief Systems in Macbeth
Belief systems play an important role in the lives of humans as they govern a person’s thoughts, words and actions and often reflect the predominant values of a specific period in time. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, three different belief systems are present: belief of the Supernatural, the Great Chain of Being and Divine Justice. Belief in the Supernatural is the belief that factors such as fate, astrology and nature determine the path of a person’s life and may become self-fulfilling prophesies. The Great Chain of Being is the belief in hierarchical systems that once disrupted will result in chaos.
Lastly, Divine Justice is the belief that all actions will be reciprocated, either though punishment or reward. Each of these systems share the common key principle that going against their ideals and beliefs will result in violent consequences. In the opening scene, the three witches are introduced and begin to cause trouble for the protagonist, Macbeth. Belief in the Supernatural is consistently demonstrated throughout the play by the witches’ prophesies which determine Macbeth’s fate and, ultimately, his demise.
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The first prophesy the witches make is that Macbeth, who is currently the Thane of Glamis, will soon be promoted to Thane of Cawdor and subsequently to King the Scotland when they greet him by saying, “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! \ All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor! \ All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! ” (1. 3. 48-50) The witches’ prophesy is fulfilled when Duncan, the King of Scotland, declares, “No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive\ Our bosom interest. Go pronounce his present death, \And with his former title greet Macbeth. (1. 2. 66-68) and, later, after the death of King Duncan, Macbeth becomes king:
“The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth. \ He is already named and gone to Scone\ to be invested. ” (2. 4. 30-32) Later in the play, Macbeth seeks out the witches to further explain their previous prophesies and how they came to know of them. The witches elaborate on their prophesies by using equivocations which Macbeth interprets in a literal sense. When the witch’s Third Apparition forewarns, “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until\ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill\ Shall come against him. (4. 1. 92-94), Macbeth instantly dismisses the prophesy by saying, “That will never be. \… our high-placed Macbeth\ shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath\ to time and mortal custom. ” (4. 1. 94, 98-100) However, the omen does become the truth when a messenger brings word to Macbeth that an enemy force is approaching: “The wood began to move. \… Within this three mile may you see it coming; \ I say a moving grove. ”(5. 5. 35, 37-38) Lastly, the witches’ prophesize to Macbeth that he should be weary of his friend Macduff saying, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!
Beware Macduff, \ Beware the Thane of Fife. ” (4. 1. 71-72). Macbeth’s demise does come at the hands of Macduff, who proudly announces to Malcolm, the rightful king of Scotland, “Hail, King! For so thou art. Behold where stands\ Th’usurper’s cursed head. ” (5. 8. 54-55) The warnings that the witches provide Macbeth eventually became self-fulfilling prophesies and made Macbeth subconsciously alter his decisions to follow them which led to his untimely death. This shows that Macbeth truly believed the witches’ prophesies and was willing to blindly follow them, even to his death.
Belief in the Great Chain of Being is demonstrated in Macbeth when the rigid structure of the social hierarchy of the kingdom is disrupted and chaos results. The first sign of disruption occurs when Lady Macbeth develops a plan to kill King Duncan so that her husband, Macbeth, can become king and her, the queen. When Macbeth sends a missive to Lady Macbeth telling her that the king is coming to stay with them, she decides to kill Duncan, saying, “The raven himself is hoarse\ That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan\ Under my battlements. (1. 5. 38-40) After following through with her ambitious plan, Lady Macbeth is unable to handle the guilt, goes mad and dies shortly thereafter. Her guilt is evident when she is sleepwalking and says, “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All\ the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little\ hand. ” (5. 1. 50-52)
Shortly after, during the attack on Macbeth to claim the throne for Malcolm, Macbeth hears a woman’s scream and questions, “Wherefore was that cry? ”, Seyton responds, “The Queen, my lord, is dead. ” (5. 5. 5-16) Lady Macbeth kills King Duncan, and this reveals that while she does capture the throne, her days as the sovereign queen are short-lived. The disruption continues when Macbeth follows through with his wife’s plans and kills the King of Scotland. He says to Lady Macbeth, “I have done the deed. ” (2. 2. 15) Unbeknownst to Macbeth, the witches placed a spell on him preventing him from being able to sleep if he killed the king. Sleep shall neither night nor dayHang upon his penthouse lid. He shall live a man forbid. Weary sev’nnights nine times nineShall he dwindle, peak and pine. 1. 3. 19-23) Unable to sleep, Macbeth is unable to function properly, and starts to see the ghost of Banquo, who he had just had murdered by assassins. Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee! Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;Thou hast no speculation in those eyesWhich thou dost glare with! (3. 4. 94-97) This suggests that Macbeth is feeling guilty for killing his friend and suffers mentally as a result. The disruption of the death of King Duncan affects not only the people involved, but it is reflected in nature as well.
Ross, a Scottish nobleman, is discussing the peculiar events that have occurred since the death of King Duncan. And Duncan’ horses – a thing most strange and certain- Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they wouldMake war with mankind. ‘Tis said they eat each other. (2. 4. 14-18) The horses’ unrest explains how not just people are affected by the change of order and that animals are attuned to changes as well.
Once the hierarchical structures in Macbeth became disrupted by the death of the King, pandemonium ensued, leading to the death of Lady Macbeth, the mental instability of Macbeth, and the unnatural disorder of the King’s horses. Divine Justice is demonstrated in Macbeth through actions that result in both rewards and punishments. The first act of Divine Justice occurs when Lady Macbeth plans the murder of King Duncan, “The raven himself is hoarse\ That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan\ Under my battlements. ” (1. 5. 8-40), which Macbeth undertakes on his wife’s behalf. The punishment for her treason against her country is her untimely death, “The Queen, my lord, is dead. ” (5. 5. 16) The second example of divine justice in Macbeth results when Macbeth kills Macduff’s family and attempts unsuccessfully to kill Macduff as well. When Ross relates the news to Macduff of his family’s demise, he says, Your castle is surprised, your wife and babesSavagely slaughtered.
To relate the mannerWere, on the quarry of these murdered deer,To add the death of you. (4. 3. 05-208) For his role in killing Macduff’s family and his attempt on Macduff, Macbeth receives his punishment at the hands of Macduff who says, “Hail, King! For so thou art. Behold where stands\ Th’usurper’s head. ” (5. 8. 54-55) Death is, once again, the punishment received for Macbeth’s murderous actions. Reward is also an outcome that can result from a person’s actions. In Macbeth, Malcolm, Duncan’s son, is a good and honest person. I am yetUnknown to woman, never was forsworn, Scarcely have coveted what was mine own,At no time broke my faith, would not betrayThe devil to his fellow, and delightNo less in truth and life. 4. 3. 126-131) Malcolm’s goodness is rewarded by being proclaimed king after the death of Macbeth. After Macduff kills Macbeth, he says to Malcolm, “Hail, King! For so thou art. ” (5. 8. 54) Malcolm’s becoming king shows that those who perform good deeds and are good people are compensated. Examples of Divine Justice can be found throughout the play, resulting in punishment for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth through deaths and reward for Malcolm’s goodness by becoming king.
The three belief systems of belief in the Supernatural, the Great Chain of Being and Divine Justice share the mutual fundamental that chaos will result if their ideals are countered. The play Macbeth by Shakespeare provides numerous examples of different belief systems that were predominant in Elizabethan times and the disruption that occurred when the belief systems were defied. Belief of the Supernatural is illustrated when the self-fulfilling prophesies of the witches made Macbeth alter his decisions leading to his untimely death.
The Great Chain of Being is demonstrated by the disruptions that occurred after the death of King Duncan, including the death of Lady Macbeth, the mental instability of Macbeth and the strange behaviour of the King’s horses. Lastly, Divine Justice is portrayed through the punishment of death to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the reward of sovereignty to Malcolm. Belief systems are still evident and prevalent today though in more structured ways as evidenced by punishment for breaking the law, providing bonuses for good work, overthrowing of government resulting in wars and people’s belief in horoscopes.