The play Macbeth by William Shakespeare is still a well known a widely studied text, despite having been written many centuries ago. Arguably one of the most pivotal themes of the play is that of power, which is looked at in many different ways and lights in the text. Ultimately, Shakespeare does not seem to support the commonly held view that power corrupts.
Rather, he suggests that the desire to attain power is a trait of most people, to some degree or another, and that when an individual has that desire particularly strongly, or when their desire is increased by them sensing an opportunity, they will be willing to compromise their morals in order to pursue their goals.
He also suggests through his characters’ actions that the desire for power is insatiable, and will continue with the same strength even when greater power is attained, or when one starts from a powerful position. This desire for power drives the actions of the central characters, and by extension it drives the plot forward.
It is also the thing that gives the play the main hallmarks of the tragedy; the central, originally noble character’s descent into moral corruption and, ultimately, death. The central character of the play is, predictably, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman and general. By looking at Macbeth’s personality as the play progresses it can be seen that Shakespeare did not intend to suggest that power corrupts. Macbeth is in a position of power at the start of the play, and yet we are introduced to him through the speech of other characters saying how respected and morally good he is, such as in Duncan’s exclamation of “O valiant cousin!
Worthy gentleman! ” His moral failings only begin after he encounters the witches, who prophesize that he’ll be given greater power in the future. This ignites his desire and ambition, which is suggested to have already been present in him, as well as in everyone else. This strong desire for power takes very little time before it leads him to contemplating murdering the king so he can take the throne for himself; “why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair”.
Already he is appalled at his own thoughts, suggesting that the evil was already within him, but it took the sudden increase in his desire for power to unlock it, and now it begins to lead him down a path he himself realises is wrong. Despite having just been made Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth still endeavours to become king. This supports the idea that the desire for power is insatiable, something already suggested by the fact he desired to be Thane of Cawdor when he was already Thane of Glamis. The only time Macbeth’s ambition ceases to hold sway over him is when he is king, but that is not really because his desire for power has been sated.
It is partly because there are few higher positions for him to acquire, especially as he is more powerful than most kings due to ruling as a tyrant, giving himself absolute control over his kingdom. The other key reason why he stops being driven by his ambition at that point is because his actions, caused primarily by his desire for power, have broken him and left him emotionally numb; “I have supped full with horrors: Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts/Cannot once start me”. His moral corruption reached such a great level that it led to him losing many of the things he valued the most, including his wife.
When he realised that he had reached the position of power he was after, he finally came to terms with what he had done to get there and lost the drive to attain more power. Lady Macbeth is also very ambitious, arguably more so than her husband, as when he is expressing doubts it is her who manipulates him into succumbing to his desire for power. She admits to herself that he might be too timid and morally pure to do what is needed for them to get what they want; “Yet I do fear thy nature: It is too full of the milk of human-kindness/To catch the nearest way.
Thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition but without/The illness should attend it”. She even considers that she herself might not be able to do what must be done, so she prays to the Spirits to “fill [her], from crown to toe, top full/Of direst cruelty”. This shows her completely giving in to her desire for power, sacrificing her morality in order to make sure her ambition is not stymied by her own conscience. The way Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband demonstrates the power she has over him already, which she has as a result of knowing how to change his mind.
She uses emotional blackmail, saying how she would have killed her own baby if she had sworn to do so as he had sworn to kill the king, and hinting at the idea that she had a child but it died, making Macbeth feel guilty and sympathetic towards her. In addition to this she ridicules his masculinity, or lack thereof, and states that he is cowardly to try back out of their plan after introducing the idea so recently, which had appeared to be a sign of courage.
This is an example of a high stakes power play between what should be a loving and supporting couple, but what is instead a pair of ambitious individuals using and manipulating each other. This suggests that their desire for power has outweighed their love, though it is shown that this was not always so, and it is the additional manipulation of Macbeth by the witches that has made it the case. The dynamic of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth changes yet again after the assassination of Duncan.
After Lady Macbeth convinces her reluctant husband to do whatever it takes to see his ambitions fulfilled, he then starts acting more and more as the conscienceless vessel driven purely by the desire for power without “the milk of human kindness”. It is as if after that one point where he had to decide for certain whether or not to murder Duncan, at which time, if not for her influence, he would have chosen to do the right thing, he no longer felt as though guilt or similar things applied to him.
This led to the power being reversed; earlier Lady Macbeth prayed to the Spirits to harden her resolve and make her less human and more powerful, and now Macbeth has become even less human than her, despite the intervention of the Spirits. This leads to him keeping her out of the decision making process for the first time. After she manipulates him into murdering Duncan there is not a single other power game where she really stood a chance. They are no longer “partners in greatness” as Macbeth claimed earlier, as he has now sacrificed his morals for more power, in the same way that she tried to but couldn’t manage to the same extent.
The witches serve to frame the significance of power in this play, as they themselves seem to have no desire to attain powerful positions, but they do revel in the ability to manipulate people simply for their amusement, which is essentially a demonstration of their power. Also, despite being among the only key characters with no ambition in the traditional sense, they are also the characters who best understand the desire of power on the part of most other people, and the way that that desire can be played to in order to manipulate people.
They cleverly ignite Macbeth’s ambition, and start him off down the path towards assassinating Duncan. This means that they are actually among the most powerful characters, mostly as a result of recognising people’s desire for power and becoming adept at manipulating that desire. There are many characters who are not driven by their desire for power, but whose actions are for the most part responses to the actions of other characters like Macbeth who are driven by ambition. This means that they are still driven by the desire for power, just not by their own.
It is important to note that the fact they are not seen to be overtly ambitious does not mean Shakespeare is suggesting they are without ambition, just that he does not focus on it and that it has not become such a significant part of their personalities that they are clearly driven by it. There are also hints that the desire for power has not stopped being a major influence in the lives of the characters even at the end of the play, as the witches prophesized that Banquo’s sons would become king, but the play ends with Malcolm as king.
This suggests that events similar to those in the play would happen again after the play is over, with one of Banquo’s sons succumbing to the desire for power and seizing the throne for himself. This implies that the desire for power is a universal trait, and that from the point of view of mankind as a whole it is insatiable. Throughout the play the significance of power is very apparent, and the desire for power is a pivotal theme, driving the plot forward.
Some characters are motivated by ambition, while others are motivated by resistance to the ambition of those other characters, but all characters have their actions vitally shaped by the desire for power. Sometimes the characters’ natural ambition is not enough to push the plot onwards, and so it takes manipulation or power games on the part of other characters to precipitate their ambition to the degree required. Shakespeare seems to assert in this play that the desire for power is a universal trait of mankind, and often one’s morals will be compromised in fruitless attempts to sate that desire.
Cite this Power in Macbeth
Power in Macbeth. (2016, Oct 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/power-in-macbeth/