Power Relations in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Belief in Prophecies as the Cause for Protagonist's Raise and Fall; Success and Madness

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

27 Pages


Table of Content

Power Relations in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Belief in Prophecies as the Cause for Protagonist's Raise and Fall; Success and Madness

1. Introduction

2. Power in the Elizabethan England

3. Power of Doubleness
3.1. Lady Macbeth
3.1.1. Female Power
3.1.2. Mortal versus Magical Thoughts
3.1.3. Bloody Instructions
3.1.4. Lady Macbeth's Madness
3.2. Macbeth: Male and Supernatural Power
3.2.1. Role of the Witches
3.2.2. Fatal Vision
3.2.3. Banquo's Ghost
3.2.4. Fear and Ambition Ending in Madness

4. Résumé

Power Relations in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Belief in Prophecies as the Cause for Protagonist's Raise and Fall; Success and Madness

1. Introduction

The following term paper is based on the Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare and examines the power relations in this masterpiece of work. The tragic flaw of the characters, in particular Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's will be analysed, whether the belief in prophecies is, in deed, the cause for their fall or if there are any other argumentations that must be taken under consideration. Therefore, both protagonists, who are also husband and wife, will show us their own perspectives of their tragic flaw. This leads us to the fact that the main part of this term paper is divided into two parts that will demonstrate the different ways, - Macbeth and Lady Macbeth - of how to read the text in the end.

Starting, in general, with power relations in the Elizabethan England, here, it is important to know that the main focus is upon female characters, because considering the most powerful personality in the country as being queen, Queen Elizabeth I.. Thus, one may see that power is not given only to men, but to women, as well.

Afterwards, the main part with the Power of Doubleness proceeds. In the tragedy of Macbeth there are a lot characteristics of doubleness, which goes through the text; for example, the duplicitous nature of the characters, world of wishes versus world of conscience, sorrow and guilt versus despair, death scenes etc. Therefore, this strategy is also behold in this term paper and that is why we have got a separation of, firstly, Lady Macbeth with subheadings like Female Power, Mortal versus Magical Thoughts, Bloody Instructions and Lady Macbeth's Madness, and, secondly, Macbeth with its subheadings such as Role of the Witches, Fatal Vision, Banquo's Ghost, Fear and Ambition Ending in Madness. The term paper ends with a brief résumé that collects all the results.

2. Power in the Elizabethan England

First of all, it is important to know that the Tragedy of Macbeth is written in a time of transition, so in 1606. The former and last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. died on 24th March of 1603 and was, therefore, succeeded by her cousin, Queen Mary of Scot's son, King James VI of Scotland and also King James I of England as the first Stuart monarch over two crowns.

Despite this fact, it is also essential to analyse the power relations in this age in order to understand the way of thinking and acting of female individuals in that time of period, in particular Lady Macbeth, because considering an age with the most powerful personality in that country being the queen of Shakespeare's England, Queen Elizabeth I. Her majesties existence, therefore, is a basis for the comparison between the fictional figures (such as Lady Macbeth) created by Shakespeare and the difficulties that faces a woman in a ruling position. Queen Elizabeth I remains the most notable and influential figures in all history. In her time of reign for 39 years of Shakespeare's 52 years, her influence on the genius writer was quite obvious. Throughout all the years, she has been analysed from different perspectives and often been shown as a ruling female queen in the extremes.[1] This is shown in a quotation by Susan Bassnett in Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective, where she states, what is still fascinating about Elizabeth is that all the writing and rewriting of her history, the multi- faceted depictions of a long dead woman who reigned for 45 years nevertheless refuse to yield a coherent, consistent picture of her.[2]

Her strength, independence and power are best illustrated by the fact that she rules over persons and remains in control of her self situation as a queen in a period of time, in which women have certainly been not able to participate actively neither socially, nor politically.[3]

Moreover, she followed her duties so perfectly that her sex never diminished her prestige, it actually enhanced it. And that, in an age when the social value of a women was in retreat, is a unique and extraordinary achievement.[4]

Additionally, her choice to remain as the Virgin Queen, so not to marry anyone, was rather a demonstration of her determination and self-confidence as being the head of the country than putting herself in a circumstance, in which she continually had to defend herself; The glories of her reign were once more attributed to her own genius; and such was the power of her extraordinary personality, the strength of her allure, that they are still seen so today.[5]

Queen Elizabeth I. represents all that is best in a powerful ruler, not only relying on her position as a queen, but also protecting herself from the stereotypical 'weakness' of her femaleness. In general terms she is protecting herself from her own. However, her sex never becomes a disadvantage to her, but she tends to profit from it by using her sex as a weapon.[6]

Elizabeth was able to use her sex as a potent weapon in this overtly masculine society and skilfully turn a perceived disadvantage into one that could be cleverly exploited to both her own and her kingdom's benefit.[7]

3. Power of Doubleness

The whole tragedy is a play in which the strategy of doubleness is used very often. Doubleness in this context is to be understood as a power- gaining- process by playing with the controversial extremes, especially filling up characters with a lot of paradoxes. For instance, female characters filled with male attributes and vice versa, loyalty and mortal thoughts to the same person behold in one mind, traitor and hero of one person, duplication of the fate (belief in becoming a king and hope for salvation), loyal servant to the king and planning the assassinate succession. All these controversies are noticeable in only two characters: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In the following the two perspectives will show the raise and fall of each character. Starting with Lady Macbeth, planning of the murder, doing "the most bloody business"[8] and her madness ending in death; the analysis will continue with Macbeth's belief in supernaturalism, his ambition and, here again, after his raise, his fall and ending in death.[9]

3.1. Lady Macbeth

3.1.1. Female Power

Female Power in Macbeth is, therefore, important, because only than one might understand the acting of Macbeth while doing the bloody business, the tragedy as a whole, and the protagonist's tragic flaw at the end of the tragedy.

As we mentioned above, like Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Macbeth is also born to rule if not to reign.[10] Her pursuit of power characterises her throughout the play and this becomes a part of herself. Power in this context is something she desires for herself because of her self- awareness in persuading her husband; she is determined to work through Macbeth in order to get to the throne, even if this means to pay a 'prize' for the throne. She is not only loyal to her husband and King Duncan, at least she seems to be, but also manipulative. In order to be relentless and without any sorrow, she must get rid of her own self. The separation of her-self, thus turning off her emotions, what is to be understood as a female weakness, is a requirement for her acting, as we know.[11] This topic, attempts to get rid of her own self, her own nature, gaining more and more masculine attributes, will be discussed in a detail later.

Nevertheless, there are similarities and differences between Lady Macbeth as being female with male attributes, who wants the spirits to unsex her and the historical queen, Queen Elizabeth I, who is also a woman with male attributes, but accepting the fact of her female weakness. However, her sex as a 'weakness' is not to be understood as an imperfection or lack of disability to reign, but much more than that: it is to be understood as 'even as a queen, I am able to reign like a man even more better, because I am a woman.' This is hilariously shown in her speech directed to the troops at Tilbury on August 9, 1588, where she describes herself.

Wherefore I am come among you at this time but for my recreation and pleasure, being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live and die amongst you all, to lay down for ma God and for my kingdom and for my people mine horror and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too - and take foul scorn that Parma or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my real.[12]

If we consider Lady Macbeth's fall at the end of the tragedy, her ambition and request for power, it is hard to say that she feels and acts the same way like Queen Elizabeth once did.

3.1.2. Mortal versus Magical Thoughts

After a short view is given into the female power, in particular Lady Macbeth's one, we shall now continue with the scene analysis, in which the bloody business is planned and the preconditions[13] for the business are fulfilled. This part will cope with mortal thoughts, which are in the mind of Lady Macbeth; and, therefore, Act I; Scene V, where a letter arrives to Lady Macbeth, will be analysed.


“They met me in the day of success, and I

have learned by the perfectest report they have more in

them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire I. mortal,

to question them further, they made themselves air, into desire

which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder

of it came missives from the king, who all-hailed me

'Thane of Cawdor,' by which title, before, these weird title

sisters saluted me, and referred me to the coming on of

time with 'Hail, king that shalt be!' This have I thought

good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness,

that thou might’st not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being

ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it to

thy heart, and farewell.” heart

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be

What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature; II. fear,nature

It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without III. ambition

The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, illness

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,

And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'ld’st have, great


That which cries, “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it,

And that which rather thou dost fear to do, IV. fear

Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,

That I may pour my spirits in thine ear V.

And chastise with the valor of my tongue

All that impedes thee from the golden round,

Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

To have thee crowned withal.[14]

The analysis section is divided into two parts. The quotation above deals with the first part. Here, we have listed on the right the most important words in the soliloquy of Lady Macbeth, which will have a great importance throughout the text. Mortal, desire, title, heart, fear, nature, ambition and illness are central elements of the play.

There are also words in bold, which are categorised into five parts. These five parts are now to be analysed.

In (I.) the very close relationship between the couple is shown to the reader. Here, Macbeth informs his wife about the circumstance with the witches and the prophecies they have made. One of the prophecies is fulfilled, and now, they hope, wish, and in particular, desire for the fulfilment of the second prophecy that he shall be king. Nevertheless, in (II.) Lady Macbeth is aware that her husband can under no circumstances do any bloody business to get the prophecy fulfilled, because his nature is full of human kindness. These lines show us the first mortal thoughts of Lady Macbeth to do anything what is to be done in order to get to the throne. In (III.) she characterises her husband further on by saying that he is ambitious, but to weak to do unmorally things to get to the thing that he desires at most. Every explicit characterisation is also an implicit self-characterisation. By this term, the reader will understand that Lady Macbeth is going to take some matters into her own hand and, therefore, as in (IV.), her husband has nothing more to fear, because she is going to whisper something in his ear with the "valor of her tongue" (V.). In other words, she is going to manipulate, influence, paternalise, encourage Macbeth. Thus, Lady Macbeth will plan the assassination and give bloody instructions to her husband that he has to follow. By doing so, she does not herself murder King Duncan. Nonetheless, she is guilty in intention, and really more guilty than her husband, because she incites him to murder the king.[15] [16]

The second part of the analysis will deal with the following text:


The raven himself is hoarse

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan

Under my battlements. Come, you spirits VI.

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, unsex

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full VII.

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood. cruelty, blood

Stop up the access and passage to remorse, remorse

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, VIII.

And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers, murdering

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night, nature, night

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark IX. heaven, blanket

To cry “Hold, hold!”[17] dark

I would dare to say that this extract of the tragedy is the most important part, because without it, the tragedy of Macbeth would not be understood, as we do it now, or even has existed, as it does now. This is the part of requirement/precondition that is to be done in order to commit the crime or murder the king. Murdering somebody is only able to do, if there is no humanity, no remorse, no emotions left; and, thus, this extract shows the reader directly that hell is chosen over heaven and darkness is chosen over blankness (IX.). The spirits are summoned in the night to fill up Lady Macbeth with cruelty and darkness, hardening her heart, leaving no place for remorse, ripping out every bit of humanity (VI.;VII.). Is this supernatural doing easy to be done? Are there no consequences? These questions will be answered in 3.1.4.[18]

Lady Macbeth fears about her husband's nature (II.), but it is rather her own one that must be feared of, because she is denying her own nature (VI.) by separating the two selves, physical/male and emotional/female, and letting only to dwell the first one in her body in her quest for the crown.[19]

Moreover, the nursing mother will not be there anymore (VIII.), because milk is taken away from her breasts. Milk stands for childhood, nurture, upbringing, parenting, life, mercy, blessing, graciousness, charm, sweetness, loveliness and over all it stands for the ideal woman.[20] In these lines the reader will also understand that Lady Macbeth is not fully and primary interested in her husband's future, because she fails to acknowledge to give the future king a living heir to the thrown.[21]

3.1.3. Bloody Instructions

"Bloody instruction"[22] is a terminus used by Macbeth himself in I.7. It is quite fitting in this context, because in this part of the term paper we are going to show the instruction and, therefore, Lady Macbeth's influence over her husband, and of course, the bloody business done.

It is quite obvious that all what is necessary to complete the murderous task, it is fulfilled and the murder or treason on the king shall happen. Thus, King Duncan shall never see the sun the next day.[23] At this point, Lady Macbeth is ready to act, but her husband's precondition has not been fulfilled, yet. Therefore, he must be convinced in order to act, because Macbeth hesitates, does not want to murder his king, he is undecided and confused. His humanity is still preventing him from the murderous action and this is why he cannot act against a person to whom he stays in double trust.


He's here in double trust:

First, as I am his kinsman, and his subject,

Strong both against the deed; than, as his host

Who should against his murderer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself.[24]

Macbeth cannot proceed because of two reasons; he sees himself as His Majesties loyal "kinsman" and "subject", on the one hand, and as his "host", on the other hand. In both cases the treason is worst- doubled in quantity, because the deceitful betrayal is not to be done to a king, who honours the persons beneath him and, in particular, the treason shall not occur in the own house. Otherwise, she functions of the resting place, the own house, will be lost; dark clouds will never diminish over them and the beginning of the dark future will be triggered. As a result, the murderous plan over the king must be stopped:


We will proceed no further in this business.

He hath honoured me of late, and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people[.][25]

It is not easy to stop the bloody plan, because there are more things involved than only the throne; self-fulfilment, self-awareness, ambition, deconstructing of gender categories[26] and so on. This is why, Macbeth must also fulfil the precondition in order to be able to complete the murderous task. In this case, it is the role of Lady Macbeth, who must persuade her husband and motivate him for their quest to the throne.

The tragedy of Macbeth begins with the battlefield scene, in which Macbeth is shown to the reader as a hero with masculine power expressed through the use of physical power.


[1] cf. L. Hawley, Yvette. Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra: A Study of The Fictional Female Ruling Figure in ShakespeareanTragedy. California, 2002. Print. (Henceforth: Yvette, 2002).

[2] Bassnett, Susan. Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective. New York, 1988: 1.

[3] cf. Yvette, 2002.

[4] Neely, Carol Thomas. "Documents in Madness' Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture."Shakespeare Quarterly 42.3. (1991): 395. (Henceforth Neely, 1991.).

[5] Gibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I: Genius of a Golden Age. Massachussets, 1991: 265.

[6] cf. Yvette, 2002.

[7] Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I. New York, 2000: 40.

[8] Brooke, Nicholas. "William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth."The Oxford Shakespeare: Macbeth. New York 1990: 124. (Henceforth Macbeth, 1990.).

[9] cf. Hunter, Dianne. "Doubling, Mythic Difference, And The Scapegoating of Female Power in Macbeth."Psychoanalytic Review 75.1. (1988): 131ff. Print. (Henceforth Dianne, 1988.).

[10] cf. Yvette, 2002: 6.

[11] cf. Yvette, 2002: 8,9.

[12] Tudor, Elizabeth I: "Queen Elizabeth's Armada Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, August 9, 1588."Elizabeth I Collected Works. Ed. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose. Chicago, 2000: 325-26.

[13] The word 'precondition' will appear several times throughout the term paper. This footnote is written in order to understand the fully meaning of this word. In most of the secondary literature there is a description of Lady Macbeth's and Macbeth's actions as following: In general: in order to do abc, xyz must happen before. In our context, in order to act cruel (L.Macbeth and Macbeth), these 'preconditions' must happen: Lady Macbeth getting rid of her nature, rejecting femaleness, unsexing part etc. or Macbeth; he shall be motivated, influenced, manipulated, using him with masculine feelings etc. For all these words, I have chosen the terminus 'precondition' = something that must be done before getting into action.

[14] Macbeth, 1990: 111f.

[15] cf. Yvette, 2002: 10.

[16] cf. Adelman, Janet. "'Born of woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in 'Macbeth'". Macbeth, William Shakespeare. Ed. Alan Sinfield. Basingstoke, 1998: 56.

[17] Macbeth, 1990: 111.

[18] cf. Chamberlain, Stephanie. "Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England."College Literature 32.3. (2005): 79. Print. (Henceforth Dianne, 1988.)

[19] cf. Yvette, 2002: 8.

[20] cf. Jacob, Joachim; Butzer, Günter. Metzler Lexicon literarischer Symbole. Weimar, 2009: 228. (Henceforth Metzler, 2008.).

[21] cf. Dianne, 1988: 84.

[22] Macbeth, 1990: 118.

[23] Macbeth, 1990: 114.

[24] Macbeth, 1990: 118.

[25] Macbeth, 1990: 119.

[26] cf. Dianne, 1988: 79.

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Power Relations in Shakespeare's Macbeth
Belief in Prophecies as the Cause for Protagonist's Raise and Fall; Success and Madness
University of Mannheim
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power, relations, shakespeare, macbeth, belief, prophecies, cause, protagonist, raise, fall, success, madness
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Habib Tekin (Author), 2014, Power Relations in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/280360


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