Peasants of the early sixteenth century are often pictured carrying a bundle of limbs tied with vines on their backs. This is a perfect metaphor for the events in Macbeth. Macbeth is one of many thanes, or limbs, bundled together. The thanes are united by the king, or the vine. Scotland, or the peasant, carries the bundle by the sweat of his brow. They carry the bundle for fires on cold nights, or wars, and to build homes, or castles, to protect them from the elements, or invaders. If the limbs are tied improperly, one limb may slip to the side and cause the peasant, or nation, to stumble or fall. If the limb slides completely out, the rest of the limbs may follow because the bundle is loose. Marriage is like a triangle. Each spouse makes up one of the leaning sides, and marriage the lower side. The three together are very strong, but to stand they all must be united.
The longer a marriage is held the longer the bottom stretches, and the more dependent each person becomes on the other. If one side tries to stand on its own then the second will fall on the first as it tries to stand. This metaphor also excellently exemplifies the catastrophe that occurs in Macbeth as both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth try to separate. Macbeth is a eighteenth century play written by William Shakespeare. Using these two metaphors, the breakdown in the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth and between the king and the thanes and how they perfectly parallel each other because each is caused by Macbeths will to be independent
According to Websters dictionary, the archaic definition of independence is competence (1148). To be independent is not to be subject to control by others (Gove 1148). This means that independence is to be in control of ones decisions and to feel they are good decisions. Macbeth, on the other hand, feels independence is to not be subordinate to others like the king.
To be independent, one must be strong. Inner strength, not physical strength, is needed. Inner strength is only accomplished by having a high self-esteem. Macbeth does not and must use others to reach for independence. Macbeth needs this strength: It [Macbeth] hurls a universe against a man, and if the universe that strikes is more impressive than the man who is stricken, as great as his size and gaunt as his soul may be he will fall. (Van Doren 217) According to Macbeths ideas of independence and of strength, he is neither independent nor strong. He feels the need for both and thus allows nothing, including murder, to get into his way.
Shakespeare opens Macbeth with the disorder being stabilized by the king and thanes. The thanes fought rebellious arm gainst arm to curb his lavish spirit (I, ii, 56- 7). Macbeths stature increased to fill the space in the bundle of limbs opened by the death of the Thane of Cawdor for what he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won (I, ii, 67). When we first see him [Macbeth] he is already invaded by those fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable (Van Doren 216).At the end of Act I, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are discussing whether or not to assassinate the king (I, ii). Macbeth has not committed himself to this sin and to independence, he has not broken the commitatus bond that exists between the king and thane. Likewise, Macbeths marriage is unstable as they argue, but their triangle is still together as they depend on one another.
Lady Macbeth and Macbeth each experiment with external forces to gain independence from their spouse. Macbeth uses the witches, on which he becomes increasingly dependent. Lady Macbeth uses alcohol and Satan to unsex her and make her strong (II, ii, 1; I, v, 42). Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deny their dependence on their aid, and still require their spouse. Their self denial of their dependence makes them weak, and the more self denial the weaker they get. As a married couple, they are splitting away from each other: they are trying to turn their triangle of dependence into a open square of independence.
The split between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth becomes apparent with the assassination of king Duncan. By the end of their arguing in the beginning of Act II, the two had not come to a final decision as to whether to kill the king or not (I, v, 72). Without the consent of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth tries to kill Duncan but fails, because she lacks strength and covers her ineptitude with the lame excuse that he resembled my father as he slept (II, ii, 12-3). Lady Macbeth lacks strength, because she only has conscience strength formed by extreme self denial. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Macbeth is almost strong enough to complete the task without Lady Macbeth. He is driven to the murder of Duncan partly by the constant goading of Lady Macbeth and partly by his own will to be in control of Scotland: he feels power is strength (Watkins 29). His strength comes from multiple places. It comes from his strength as a warrior, from the witches revelations, and from self denial of his dependence on the first two (I, iii, 49-50). Macbeth is still not completely independent from his wife in that he is unable to complete the task and carry them [the daggers], and smear the sleepy grooms with blood (II, ii, 48-56). The scene is painful in the way it separates husband and wife. Crime had at first brought them closely and eagerly together, but now they discover how the execution of the crime separates themIn fact, after the murder they can only speak in short sentences, not communicating or even answering questions. (Jorgensen 67)
Although he blames his rage on the grooms for killing Duncan, he was actually mad at himself for committing the murder. Not until he kills the grooms with his regret does Macbeth become totally independent from the thanes and slide from the bundle of limbs (II, iii, 108-19). The action of killing the chamber servants was the first action which Macbeth does totally independent of Lady Macbeth: he does not even mention killing the chamber servants to her: A stranger to himself and to others, he is on his way to isolationbut what he sees cannot really be shared with others for it is the uniquely appropriate and lonely torment that cannot be felt by others. Even for his wife there will be a torment of a different kind, one that likewise separates her from others. (Jorgensen 178) This reaction to his regret is the strongest divider between him and his wife: it ends their relationship of dependence for their temporal existence.
Trees limbs do not tie very well, because they break. Likewise Macbeth incapable of being king, because he is unfit for the job. He tries to replace Duncan, because he is so filled with self denial that he can not see the truth: he will never be a good king. Macbeth wants to be strong and independent at the same time but is very unsuccessful. Macbeth must use external support to stand and not to lean on Lady Macbeth so he turns to killing. He has Banquo killed, because he poses a threat. Macbeth can not do it himself, because they were once friends which shows his lack of strength to stand erect (II, i, 11). A soon as the deed is done, Macbeth falls: his control and independence falls. His plan to use Banquos death to restore order and give him strength did not work. Before all the thanes except for Macduff, Macbeth has a brief moment of insanity, in which he loses all control and reveals his true strength which has been hidden by self denial. For her own safety, Lady Macbeth tries to calm the situation and to make it excusable:
Sit, worthy friends. My lord is often thus,
And hath been from his youth. Pray you, keep seat.
The fit is momentary; upon a thought
he will again be well. If you much note him,
You shall offend him and extend his passion. Feed, and regard him not. . . (III, iv, 54-9) With little effect, she struggles to keep order but gives up and has the thanes stand not upon the order of your going (III, iv, 120-1).
Macbeths strength from self denial fails, because he is losing his sanity. To make up for the loss of support, he returns to the witches. He may concievably be under the spell of the witches, may even be possessed (Jorgenson 64). He is very uncertain of himself and asks many questions of the witches in search of answers on which he can be strengthened: Then live Macduff: what need I fear of thee?, Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earth bound root? (IV, i, 82; IV, I, 95-6). His answers do not give him sufficient strength for he vows to make assurance double sure and take a bond of fate (IV, i, 83-4). Again his will is greater than his ability, and Macbeth must have someone else kill Macduff and his family. As if trying to keep all the marbles together, each time one slips Macbeth has them killed. Unfortunately for Macbeth, he is not too successful for Fleance and Macduff get away.
Quickly Macbeth is overwhelmed with his independence. Lady Macbeth is troubled with thick-coming fancies that keep her from rest (V, iii, 38-9). She is no longer unsexed and strong so she can not sleep. She remains sane and strong longer than Macbeth, because her strength came from one source, Satan, that would never leave, but ultimately fell, because her sub-conscience fought against evil and kept her without rest. She also began to realize the wickedness of her sin for she said, all the perfumes of Arabia will not [could not] sweeten this hand (V, I, 53-5). The fight in her mind is too hard so she kills herself.
She leaves Macbeth with the rest of his subjects. Many of Macbeths soldiers are deserting him, and he gets his wish: to be independent of others (V, iii, 1). He thinks he is independent, but, in reality, he supports himself on the revelations of the apparitions for he frequently repeats until Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane and was he not born of woman? (V, iv, 60; V, iii, 3). In the end, Macbeth dies because everything he used for strength was gone.
As soon as Macbeth dies and reunites with Lady Macbeth, the thanes are reunited by Malcolm who has the qualities to make a good leader and to keep the thanes together. The suffering that Scotland had endured ended because All Hail, king of Scotland (V, viii, 59). The passions are directed in their true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested; and though the courage of Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet every reader rejoices at his fall (Johnson 484). In the end, Macbeth is independent, because he does not rely on his wife and he does not rely on the witches. Since the nation was restored to order, his death was for the better. The universe that struck was more impressive so he crumbled with lack of strength.
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Johnson, Samuel. The Plays of William Shakespeare. London: J & R Tonson, 1788
Jorgensen, Paul A. Our Naked Frailties. Los Angeles: U of CA, 1971.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. NY: Doubleday, 1939.
Watkins, Ronald. The Theology of Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University, 1964.