From Rise to Fall. An Elaboration on the Influences leading to the Macbeths’ Criminal Acts

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015
13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2.1 Lady Macbeth’s Potential and Purposes
2.2 Lady Macbeth’s Influence on Macbeth and Her Way into Madness
2.3 The Influence of The Weird Sisters/ The Witches on Macbeth
2.4 Macbeth’s Visions, Anxieties and Madness

3 Conclusion

1 Introduction

This term paper is concerned with William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, focusing on the instances which lead to the protagonist’s, Macbeth’s, rise and fall. In this context I will analyse the major characters’, Macbeth’s as well as Lady Macbeth’s, tragic progression with respect to whether the belief in the witches’ prophecies is the reason for their mutual downfall as a couple or if there are any other circumstances, which lead to their demise. Hence, both characters’ perspectives on the course of events will be demonstrated. An aspect which indispensably needs to be mentioned in connection with this topic are relations of power at the time the novel was written, that is Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I as the most powerful human being in the country plays a significant role, since power is also attributed to females. In order to understand the role of the female character in The Tragedy of Macbeth, one needs to be aware of the fact that this work was written in the year 1606[1], three years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I[2]. Given the fact that Queen Elizabeth I was considered the most powerful person in England at that time, this fact might shed light on Lady Macbeth’s actions and behaviour.

The first section of the main part, which makes Lady Macbeth the subject of discussion, will provide information on her capability and potential as a woman, her purposes as well as her immoral and vicious commissions, which influence her husband, Macbeth. Furthermore, her fall into complete madness and despair will be addressed. Subsequently, Macbeth’s role with regard to the importance of the function of the witches as a source of influence, as well as his diverse visions, such as Banquo’s ghost, will be examined. Ensuing, the interminable striving for power as well as his anxieties, which make him end up in insanity, will be presented.

In the end a conclusion will be drawn, which summarizes the reasons for Macbeth’s as well as his wife’s downfall. It will be indicated whether it is the witches’ prophecies, which mislead Macbeth into committing his crimes and in the end made him and his wife fall, whether Lady Macbeth herself is the one to blame or whether several instances in a body brought the misery about.

2.1 Lady Macbeth’s Potential and Purposes

In order to comprehend Macbeth’s ferocious activity throughout the tragedy, which in the end leads to his own and his wife’s downfall, one needs to be familiar with the weight of female power during Shakespeare’s time. Lady Macbeth’s ambition for power runs like a thread throughout the whole play. She self-consciously tries to persuade her husband to commit the murder of King Duncan, which shows that power is something she, in fact, craves herself. She leaves no remedy untried in order to convince her husband of ascending the throne in a manipulatory way. Lady Macbeth displays no emotions in doing so, which is rather unlikely for a woman, but essential for achieving her will (Browne 99). She increasingly exhibits characteristics, such as unscrupulousness and incontinence.

In the following an elaboration on Lady Macbeth’s evil thoughts in order to achieve her objective will be given. In the course of this, Act I, Scene 5, ll. 1-25 will serve as the source of analysis.

“They met me in the day of success; and

[…] they have more in them

than mortal knowledge.

[…] they made themselves air, into

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

Sisters saluted me, and referred me to the coming-on of

Time with ‘Hail Kind that shalt be. […]”

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be

What thou art promised; yet do I fear thy nature;

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


Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it. […]

And that which rather thou dost fear to do,

Than wishest should be undone. […]

That I may pour my spirits in thine ear

And chastise with the valor of my tongue


This quotations concerns the letter Lady Macbeth received from her husband, in which Macbeth relates his encounter with the witches. He expresses that on the one hand, he believes in the witches’ existence and prophecies, but on the other hand he is sceptical, since the last prophecy has not come true by then. That is the reason why he is eagerly longing for the second prophecy to be fulfilled, namely that he will become king. Furthermore, Lady Macbeth realises through this letter that her husband it too kind and warm- hearted to perform what she has got in mind, as his “nature […] is too full [of] […] human kindness”. She continues mentioning that her husband is too mild to perform immoral deeds in order to get to the throne and that she therefore will do anything necessary in order to achieve her will. Her words “And that which rather thou dost fear to do,/ Than wishest should be undone” demonstrate that she is planning to go through with her plans herself and that she is going to whisper things into her husband’s ears “with the valor of [her] tongue”. Briefly speaking, Lady Macbeth has already decided to mislead Macbeth into committing crimes in a manipulating and devious manner. She makes herself responsible and guilty for the killing of King Duncan since she talked her husband into doing it (Browne 103). One might receive the impression that if Lady Macbeth did not influence him, Macbeth would never commit his crimes, as he is “too full of human kindness” (cf. ibid.). The following text extract taken from her soliloquy again illustrates her wicked plans:

[…] Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,


This part presents in how far Lady Macbeth is obsessed with the thought of gaining power and to what extent she is already filled with cruelness and inhumanity. Here her devilish nature reveals. To the reader it seems that having Duncan killed is legitimate to her right from the beginning. She denies her femaleness, thus her nature, by dividing her person into male and female. The male side in this context goes along with her emotions, the female one with her physique (Browne 100). All in all one can infer that she is the instance to urge her husband into the unspeakable.

2.2 Lady Macbeth’s Influence on Macbeth and Her Way into Madness

This part will depict Lady Macbeth’s considerable influence on her husband. She needs to convince her husband in order to get things done because he is still doubtful and unsure whether it is right to kill the head of the state or not. His humaneness is still keeping him from performing the murder. Due to his indecisiveness, Lady Macbeth tries her hardest to persuade him. The following extract reflects his confusion:

[…] He’s here in double trust:

First, I am his kinsman, and his subject,

Strong both against the deed; then, as his host

Who should against his murderer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself. […][5]

Two things prevent him from murdering the King. Firstly, he considers himself to be obliged to be loyal, a “kinsman” and “subject”, which is inferior to the king, who honours the nation, who he is superior to. Secondly, he calls himself his “host”. Treason in both cases is of major significance. Macbeth therefore wants the gory plans to come to an end, saying to his wife:

We will proceed no longer in this business.

He hath honoured me of late, and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

Not cast aside so soon.[6]

It is now Lady Macbeth’s task to encourage and win her husband over their pursuit of power. In order to do so, she questions his masculinity, declaring him a coward in case he does not act as expected: “As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that/ Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,/ And live a coward in thine own esteem,/ […].”[7]

Manhood in this connection is put on a level with killing. Thus, her words make him change his mind and contribute to his decision to go through with the killing of the King: “[…]/ I dare do all that may become a man./ […]”[8]

By saying “When you durst do it, then you were a man […]” in l. 49, she keeps on motivating her husband and even goes one step further. “As the climax of her efforts to sting Macbeth into regicidal actions she says: “I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out, […].”[9]. Here she demonstrates her superiority over her husband (Couche 136). As soon as Macbeth raises the question, what would happen if they were to fail, Lady Macbeth soothes him, which keeps him from further hesitation.

Another appropriate example for her initial steeliness can be found, where Lady Macbeth comes to know that her husband did not put the daggers, the weapons used in the crime, where they were supposed to be put. He refuses to go back to the scene of the crime, which enrages her and makes her call him a coward. When she comes back, she speaks the following: “My hands are of your colour, but I shame/ To wear a heart so white.”[10] The reader learns that she is aware of being as much involved in the murder as her husband is, but she is strong enough to not let it unsettle her. She keeps up her toughness.

In order to approach ‘madness’ with regard to Lady Macbeth, one must firstly understand the meaning of madness. What is madness? Does it occur all of a sudden? No. Madness appears in phases and can be categorised in the following way: “The most severe kinds of insanity are reflected in the patterns of behaviour, one which resembled criminality, the other sickness. Both of these stereotypes were characterised by a terrible energy and mental incoherence, and both of them were called […] madness […] [or] lunacy […]” (Couche 140). It can be compared with a swelling, unobtrusively growing under one’s skin, waiting for the minute to break out, to eat one up and destroy one as a whole. Madness goes along with pitifulness, anxiety and regret and therefore is likely to lead to despair. “[Those affected] are solely troubled, and weary of all things […]; when it is gone so far, it is hard to cure: it is vain then to make them merry, they despair and wish to die; and when they find an opportunity, they will kill, drown, or hang themselves” (Couche 140), as it is the case with Lady Macbeth.

Her madness sets in as soon as she gets ahold of her husband’s letter and thereupon tells the spirits to ‘unsex’ her. Dealing with the topic of madness makes the reader notice that the term madness itself barely appears throughout the whole play. Thereof one can conclude that the characters consciously refuse to use it in order to prevent the feeling of madness to arise. Lady Macbeth neither wants to speak about their deeds to avert insanity. After Macbeth kills King Duncan, he feels disturbed and whenever he confides it to his wife, she tells him not to be worried and to banish these thoughts from his mind. She tells him not to feel bad about their deed, since this may drive them mad. She provides us with an example for this: “These deeds must not be thought/ After these ways: so, it will make us mad.”[11] Later, when Macbeth starts seeing his former friend’s, Banquo’s, ghost, his wife tells him to stop yarning and to act like a man.[12]

Lady Macbeth obviously takes apart gender classes in order to withstand the pressure that is building up on her but in the end she fails. She is no longer able to bring her guilt and grief in line with what she did. In the end, she realises that there is no way out of the misery: “[…] – all the/ perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O,/ O, O.”[13] Consequently, Lady Macbeth suffers from exasperation, which drives her into committing suicide. She is aware of what she caused and certain that she will never be forgiven. Taken together, her downfall is all brought up by herself. There is no other possible outcome than that, since being a woman and acting without a spark of humaneness is likely to lead to perdition. One cannot suppress or hide one’s sexual constitution, which in this context makes Lady Macbeth question her deeds as a woman. She might have succeeded in ‘unsexing’ herself for a certain amount of time, but in spite of that she is not able to get rid of the humaneness that is innate to her (Thomas 89-92).

2.3 The Influence of The Weird Sisters/ The Witches on Macbeth

The play begins with three witches, also known as the “Weird Sisters”[14], who meet at an open place. There are thunder and lightning. Their creepy way of speaking and chanting give a hint that they are of supernatural nature. After Macbeth’s encounter with them, his aim starts prospering. There are six prophecies in number addressed to Macbeth throughout the play. The first three are made straight at the beginning, during Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches:

First witch: “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis.”[15] Second witch: “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Cawdor.”[16] Third witch: “all hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter.”[17] Another prophecy is addressed to Macbeth’s companion, Banquo. Third witch: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:/ So all hail Macbeth, and Banquo.”[18] Unambiguously, the first prophecy is addressed to Macbeth, whereas the other ones are not, since the Thane of Cawdor and King Duncan are alive. But then the reader is informed that the Thane of Cawdor was executed for treason and his title is passed on to Macbeth. As soon as Macbeth gets to hear this, his belief in the prophecies starts growing and reinforces his ambition. Afterwards, there are three more prophecies made by three apparitions later on in the play. First apparition: “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth: beware Macduff,/ Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me; enough.”[19] Second apparition: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn/ The power of man; for none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth.”[20] Third apparition: “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care/ Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:/ Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill/ Shall come against him.”[21] A question which might arise in this context is whether those last prophecies serve to deceive Macbeth or if they depict facts Macbeth will encounter, since the heir to the throne is said to originate from Banquo’s lineage. For this reason, Macbeth’s downfall is implied in the prophecy, which is addressed to Banquo.

As the last three prophecies of the witches do not come true, Macbeth’s demise is unavoidable.




[3] Macbeth 1.5.1-25 (PG)

[4] Macbeth 1.5.39-42 (PG)

[5] Macbeth, 1.7. 12-16 (PG)

[6] Macbeth, 1.7. 31-33 (PG)

[7] Macbeth, 1.7. 41-43 (PG)

[8] Macbeth, 1.7. 45-46 (PG)

[9] Macbeth, 1.7. 56-57

[10] Macbeth, 2.2. 63-64

[11] Macbeth, 2.2. 33-34 (PG)

[12] Macbeth, 3.4. 60-65

[13] Macbeth, 5.1. 48-49

[14] Macbeth 1.3. 32

[15] Macbeth 1.3. 48

[16] Macbeth 1.3. 49

[17] Macbeth 1.3. 50

[18] Macbeth 1.3. 67-68

[19] Macbeth 4.1. 83-84

[20] Macbeth 4.1. 93-95

[21] Macbeth 4.1. 105-109

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From Rise to Fall. An Elaboration on the Influences leading to the Macbeths’ Criminal Acts
University of Wuppertal
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Patrycia Gellert (Author), 2015, From Rise to Fall. An Elaboration on the Influences leading to the Macbeths’ Criminal Acts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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