Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Macbeth portrays the agony of a man’s soul in the throes of temptation as he hears the voices of the witches and the voice of Lady Macbeth luring him to commit murder to gain the power of kingship. After being addressed “Thane of Glamis” and then “Thane of Cawdor” as he rides home victorious after battle, Macbeth hears the congratulatory greeting of the Weird Sisters: “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” These deceitful words Macbeth interprets as foreordained Fate. Already in possession of the title of thane of Glamis and then rewarded by King Duncan for heroism in battle with the honor of thane of Cawdor, Macbeth fantasizes that the witches’ words are far-seeing prophecies rather than clever temptations. When Macbeth reveals the witches’ words to Lady Macbeth, she too fixates on the idea of kingship and determines to seize the moment of opportunity when King Duncan visits their castle. Even if Macbeth wavers about performing the bloody deed, she will accuse his manhood: “Wouldst have that/  Which thou esteem’st the  ornament of life/ And live a coward in thine own esteem,/ Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would not’,/ Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?” Seduced by the wiles of temptation, the Macbeths have adopted the equivocal words of the witches, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”  Lies become truths, temptations appear as prophecies, and a king’s visit to Macbeth’s castle suggests Fortune’s favor for the satisfaction of Macbeth’s ambition—the ideal time and place to commit the murder that will elevate Macbeth to monarch. The witches’ prophecies mask the subtlety of evil that blurs the logical distinctions that inhere in the nature of things. Once fair is foul, then good is evil; human beings are animals; woman is man; and man is god.

Shakespeares MacBethWhile Macbeth listens to the tantalizing words of the witches promising him kingship in their predictions of the future, his fellow soldier Banquo is also flattered by the same voices that claim Banquo’s sons will be kings. Fair is foul and foul is fair. Macbeth will be king, and Banquo’s sons will be kings. Such is the sophistry of evil that promises impossibilities and speaks in contradictions. Unlike Macbeth, however, Banquo ignores the equivocal words of the Weird Sisters, calling them “bubbles” vanishing into nothing and suspecting them of crafty artfulness: “And oftentimes, to win us to their harm,/ The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/ Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/ In deepest consequence.” While Banquo acts wary and dismisses the witches’ words (“To me you speak not”),  he blames Macbeth for being “rapt” at the thought of kingship as if has “eaten on the insane root/ That takes the reason prisoner.” That is, Banquo recognizes the voice of temptation by its grandiose promises, by its double tongue, by its riddles, and by its mumbo-jumbo. The witches on the heath foretell what Macbeth will gain but never disclose what he will lose or the price he will pay for acting on the insinuations of the witches who only speak in half-truths.

When Lady Macbeth, hearing about the apparitions of the witches and their prophetic words, then learns that King Duncan will visit and stay at their castle, then the thought of murder coincides with Fate. The words of the witches, Macbeth’s “black and deep desires,” and her ambition all converge to make the murder of Duncan “legitimate” in her eyes, for good and evil are relative—the sophistry of evil.  If fair is foul, then man is animal and never needs to hear the voice of conscience or suffer the shame of guilt. If fair is foul, then woman is man and can do bloodier deeds than soldiers, even smash the brains of a nursing infant “while it was smiling in my face.”  Macbeth and Lady Macbeth presume that the end justifies the means and that the moral law ceases to operate in their special case as if they do not possess a human nature. In Machiavelli’s famous words from The Prince, fortune is a woman, and he who would conquer her must seize her by force. Rather than let time take its course and let events determine Macbeth’s future, they will rape fortune, kill the king, smear the blood on the groomsmen to implicate them of the crime, and murder Banquo. Lady Macbeth, like the witches, speaks in half-truths, imagining only the glamour of kingship but never foreseeing the guilt that will torment her soul.  Invoking evil spirits, she talks and acts as if she has no feminine nature or maternal instinct—a woman who can will herself to become a man as glibly as the witches can say foul is fair: “Unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty…. Come to my woman’s breasts/ And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers….” As they surrender to the wiles of the Weird Sisters who change the meanings of words and speak in gibberish, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth ignore the truth of the nature of things that speaks to them in their consciences.

They ignore the truth that man’s nature is rational, not animalistic:  Lady Macbeth’s intelligence eventually acknowledges the duplicity of the witches “Naught’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content.” They ignore the truth that man’s nature is moral, not lawless. The assassination of King Duncan produces an unforeseen guilt that the Macbeths conveniently ignored. Instead of a perfect crime with no evidence to  implicate the murderers—one blow “the be-all and the end-all”–the murder of Duncan causes a paranoia that precipitates more murders, violence that afflicts Macbeth’s conscience and makes him envision Banquo’s ghost during a banquet. Another upshot of the murder is Macbeth’s sleeplessness (“Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep”) and Lady Macbeth’s constant sleepwalking and washing of her hands (“Out, damned spot, out I say!”). Just as every human being sheds blood when wounded, every human being suffers guilt when violating the moral law.

Nature will out. Lady Macbeth is not a ruthless savage who can kill wantonly but a woman with a feminine sensibility. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not godlike arbiters of life and death but fallen, mortal creatures subject to human fallibility and concupiscence. Their tragedy proves that the eternal nature of things does not change, despite the witches’ riddles about fair is foul, despite Macbeth’s overweening ambition, despite Lady Macbeth’s boasts that her motherly milk can become murdering gall, and despite the witches’ reassuring cunning lies that Macbeth is invincible: “none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Birnam Wood move to Dunsinane.” Finally Macbeth comprehends the artfulness of evil. When Macbeth learns that Macduff was “from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped” by Caesarean section and discovers that his enemies approach camouflaged with leaves and branches from Birnam Wood, he is no longer confounded by the duplicity of evil but sees it in its horrific ugliness—a lying, flattering voice of temptation that reduces an honorable soldier’s noble life to “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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