The Problem in Macbeth

We have already seen that the focus is on Macbeth and his wife, furthermore, we have seen that the crucial problem is the decision and the act, especially in which sense you can consciously and freely choose to do evil, then do it and then be faced with the consequences. The problem is old. Socrates maintained that no one with full insight in what was evil, would of his own free will do it and that claim had been dominating for almost two millennia. The logical power of this claim was that it was a tautology or even better; a definition.

Any human activity, to think, to speak, to act, has to focus on a purpose. The definitive impulse to throw yourself into an activity is the urge towards selfpreservation that lies deep in any living creature. That is why man cannot want his selfdestruction; he only wants the Good, understood as that which promotes its own selfpreservation. If, however, we exclusively define the Good as man’s selfpreservation, man’s different attempts to achieve this would lead to mutual destruction.

If I – and everyone included – unhampered and in absolute selfishness only seek my own, the misfortune I could inflict on someone would naturally be limitless. So there has to be a further addition to the concept of Good. The Good, we might add, is not only the instantaneous need for satisfaction – in a matter of time it will often turn out to be an evil – but it is in fact the absolute purpose for any human being (the highest Good), and it isn’t just common for everyone, but, when you strive for it, you include the others in a true community.

But that means that the Good isn’t just a subjective phenomenon; it is objective, and in a philosophical analysis you begin to see a picture of a hierarchical construction of still higher goods, from the simple ones you can strive for in everyday life to the eternal salvation that can only be sought for ts own sake. Since man wants to be in accordance with himself and since the whole area of Good is conform with man, man must freely want the Good; you could be more accurate by saying that man necessarily wants the Good. However, it is a fact that man once in a while actually chooses the evil and that needs an explanation.

First and foremost, this explanation is lack of insight. It is reason which in the given situation can choose the right possibility and then make the will act upon it. But reason can be mistaken; the situation can be confused or you can find yourself in a conflict where it is doubtful which possibility is right. Under these circumstances man can do evil in the false belief that it was the Good. The source of error could be found in man’s desire as well. We’ve all got our weaknesses, strong inclinations, and we know that in a certain situation we can succumb to them. As we know the near Good is a stronger impulse than the more distant Evil.

If you, however, express it in rational categories, you could say that again reason is wrong. It believes it’s a greater Good to satisfy the immediate inclination than – if necessary – to give it up because of a more distant Good. And you could add to it that there is a strong urge to fulfil the nclination because you identify with it; without it – and its fulfilment – you weren’t yourself. Even though we no longer express the relation in these terms philosophically, we’re faced with everyday phenomena so familiar that we all know them and it’s by virtue of this we’re able to understand “Macbeth”.

Macbeth is the man who consciously and freely chooses Evil. He is the tragical figure because he looks like any of us but finds himself in an extreme situation where the act is no longer more or less harmless, but absolute in its consequences. Macbeth’s act is a breach with all natural feeling and all natural duties and he nows. Once and for all he does what cannot be done, which cannot be done again or undone, which cannot be withdrawn, which isn’t just a partial, maybe big crime, but which destroys a world order.

Under cover of dismay he expresses it like this: “… for from this instant There’s nothing serious in mortality; All is but toys: renown and grace is dead, The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees Is left this vault to brag of. ” (Act II, scene 3) 2. That the crime can get such shocking consequences must be understood from Shakespeare`s understanding of life. In a medieval way Shakespeare llustrates the world as a harmoniously built hierarchy, and this order is nature.

It manifests itself between people when they meet in trust, frankness, integrity and reliability, when they respect the bond of nature: love, sense of duty and devotion. It is a world of light, self-expression and goodness. With his crime Macbeth has torn this world down. Duncan was his king, his relative and his guest. His crime is therefore not only a murder, but a crime of unnatural nature; it has broken down all the bonds that bind the community together, thus he has brought himself in a quite new situation: a situation of disorder, unnature” monstrosity and destruction.

The short first scene is a presentation of the demoniacal attempt to tempt Macbeth, and already then do we know a lot. For example there is no attempt to simultaneously tempt Banquo. It would have been in vain. But Macbeth is the typical victim to temptations, that is, he is a man for whom choices are not an obvious thing. In an important situation of choice, the alternatives will occur to him as equally possible – or impossible. His imagination will take possession of them, see through them, weigh them and it would be very complicated for him to reach a conclusion.

Only a man of such calibre will it make sense to tempt. Thereupon we get his friends’opinion of him. It is unequivocal: He is the worthy warrior, the noble man, the loyal thane, and we are told about the eward that awaits him and turns out to be so fatal: The appointment to be Thane of Cawdor. That means we see Macbeth both as the one who lets himself be influenced by others and the one who in a grandiose way can act when it counts. One could say that there is something immature about him, something naive.

It`s possible to manipulate with his free will and the point of attack is the missing rootedness in his opinion of what is right. “Fair is foul and foul is fair” becomes his principal characterisation. How will a person of this type react in a decisive situation?. To answer the question one has to understand two things. In most situations of choice, many possibilities are presented; there is a wide spectrum to choose from and the choice will be within a limited range; it will be of some importance but, it can be withdrawn; you can redecide or ward off the effect if it was wrong.

It is in these conditions we find ourselves in normal situations of choice. When, on the other hand, the acute situation of choice occurs, the one that fatefully and irrevocably determines our life, the choice is narrowed down into a dilemma; we are faced with an either/or, where no third possibility is given, and where it`s impossible to get through with a compromise. Secondly, in the acute situation of choice it will be ourselves as human that will be at stake. It’s not about some more or less important detail, but it’s about the Absolute, which unconditionally determines everything.

And the question is then, in what sense we under these circumstances have the liberty to choose. That is the situation Macbeth is placed in, the extreme and radical situation of choice. His options are narrowed down to two: either he has to commit the unnatural crime and kill his king, his relative, his guest – or he has to once and for all give up his ambition to be king of Scotland. In this situation what is the Good? Anyone – Macbeth included – realizes that ethically considered the Good is to give up the ambition.

He clearly realizes what it would cost him to choose the other opportunity: loss of eternal salvation and retribution, which will strike him in this world. Can’t he then freely choose the good opportunity? Nothing from the outside prevents him, on the contrary it urges him. But there is something else, that prevents him: If he chooses that opportunity, he has to give up all hope of kingship – but he can’t, because it would mean that he has to give up himself as Macbeth. He is only Macbeth with that ambition. This has to be rightly understood.

We all have our ambitions, more or less. But we don’t identify with them. A lot of our ambitions are never fulfilled. It hurts, but it demands from us, that we have the strength to give up without losing ourselves. If one ambition fails, we always have the others, and – the important thing is – we have ourselves. On the other hand, in a case, where a person has identified himself with one single ambition, it is impossible to give up that ambition; he has nothing to fall back on, not even another ambition, not even himself for that matter, because he is his ambition.

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