The Enigma Solved
When we first hear of Macbeth, he is a man much honored by his countrymen for his leading and courageous part in defense of his good king and native land. However, almost as soon as we meet him, we realize that he is both ambitious and murderous. For as soon as the Witches greet him with the title of future king, Macbeth thinks of murdering Duncan, the current king. But Macbeth is not merely the kind of man who serves his king until he has an opportunity of killing the king. Macbeth, though he may wish to murder Duncan for Duncan’s crown, nevertheless also wishes to be a good man. In fact he thinks of himself basically as a good man. This becomes obvious from his fright and his consciousness of his fright that result when he pictures himself murdering Duncan. Nevertheless, the powerful drive of his ambition has dangerously affected him. Macbeth regards the predictions not so much as predictions but as “supernatural soliciting,” that is, as requests to him from powers greater than man to attain his goal of the crown. Since Macbeth has mainly homicidal methods in mind, he in effect thinks of the predictions as invitations to murder. Although Macbeth does not understand the trick his mind has played on him, he has in fact been warned away from falling into the very trap laid for him by his ambitions and by the Witches. Banquo warns Macbeth, after the latter has learned that he has been made the Thane of Cawdor, that the agents of the devil sometimes tell us small truths “to betrays/ In deepest consequence.” But the unheeding Macbeth in the very next speech refers
to the predictions as “supernatural soliciting.”
Now, Macbeth’s conscience must contend not only with his powerful ambitions. Macbeth’s conscience must also contend with Lady Macbeth, his wife, and Macbeth’s love for his wife. Macbeth’s love for his wife is so great that his ambitions strive as much for her as for himself. In his letter to her telling of his meeting with the Witches he calls her “my dearest partner of greatness” and he says that he wishes her not to be ignorant of what greatness “is promised thee.” All of his thoughts, when he thinks of the pleasures and prestige of the kingship include his wife. She on her part loves him equally and wishes to see him king at least as much as she wishes to see herself queen. But she is aware of his prickly conscience, which would make it difficult for him. “To catch the nearest way,” that is, the murderous way. She therefore uses the most effective method at her command, shame. Macbeth, after all, is a soldier, and he loves his wife. Neither for himself as a soldier nor before his wife would Macbeth wants to appear as a coward. So despite his decision not to go ahead with the murder, when Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of cowardice in making his decision, he succumbs to her, and they continue with their plans for the crime.
Why had Macbeth decided against committing violence for the kingship? In a soliloquy in the seventh scene of the first act, he tells us that it is not death in the next world that he fears. Rather, he is afraid that his crime for the kingship will teach others to commit similar crimes when he is king. However, despite Macbeth’s apparent indifference to religion and morality, he is really very much involved with both. He gives as further reason against killing Duncan the fact that Duncan is Macbeth’s relative and his guest, both of which relationships urge Macbeth against committing the crime. And a final reason for not killing Duncan is that pity should prevent Macbeth from harming the good man and gentle king that Duncan has been. For most Elizabethans these reasons would have implied a concern with religion and morality, the extent of which Macbeth does not consciously admit.
Yet Macbeth allows himself to be shamed into the crime by Lady Macbeth. But, while she has whipped him into committing the act, she has not succeeded in silencing his conscience or stopping his concern with eternal things. After the murder he is distressed that he has not been able to say “Amen” at the end of prayers he had heard two men reciting. And at the same time his conscience hurts so, that he thinks he hears voices which cry, “Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep . . ..” He is in fact so hampered in his actions by the conflict between his knowledge that he has committed the crime and his abhorrence of it, that he becomes immobile. After the murder, when the two realize that Macbeth has brought the daggers from the murder chamber, Macbeth cannot return, even though returning means the difference between discovery
and success. When Lady Macbeth has returned from placing the daggers near Duncan’s attendants and hears the knocking at the gate, she almost has to push Macbeth into their bedroom so that they will look as though they have just been awakened.
The efforts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to attain the crown are successful. But Macbeth’s awareness that he has given up his eternal soul makes his especially sensitive to his desire to make his kingship secure. Also contributing to his sensitivity is the fear that his crime may be discovered. The two motives make him first turn on Banquo and Fleance, Banquo’s son, as the cause of his anxiety. Banquo was present at the Witches’ meeting with Macbeth and that fact may make him especially able to discover Macbeth’s crime. Also the Witches had predicted that Banquo’s children rather than Macbeth’s children would be kings. Perhaps Macbeth projects onto Banquo his own turn of thought and presumes that Banquo will attempt to attain the crown just as Macbeth himself had done so. Macbeth says, ” . . . to that dauntless temper of his mind, / He [Banquo] hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor / To act in safety.” At any rate, even if Banquo himself does not make an attempt, Macbeth’s children will not succeed Macbeth and Banquo’s will. In that case Macbeth will have lost not only his soul but the fruit of his labor in this world as well. For a man does not work only for his immediate profit in this world but also for the benefit of his children, who will make his name live on in honor. Macbeth therefore decides to have Banquo and Fleance killed.
Although, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth’s conscience had brought him nearly to immobility, he still decides to murder Banquo and Fleance. Nothing must stop him from living securely: “But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, / Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams, / That shake us nightly.” Despite these desperately resolute words his conscience is still able to attack him. At his state dinner the sight of Banquo’s ghost makes him shake with guilt and fear. But this terrible experience causes Macbeth to be only more desperate in his efforts to repress his conscience and stem his fear and guilt. He will return to “the weird sisters,” the Witches, whom he now recognizes as evil, so that he may “know / By the worst means, the worst,” He repeats his determination that nothing shall stop him in his quest for security. “For mine own good / All causes shall give way . . .” And all “Strange things” that he thinks of will immediately be acted out. Macbeth has completely committed himself to evil.