William Shakespeare

Corruption of Power in Macbeth by Shakespeare

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“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. How true is this of Shakespeare’s eponymous protagonist Macbeth? Explain how Shakespeare uses language imagery and stagecraft to show his demise.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written in 1603 and is the enticing story of Macbeth’s unlawful rise to power and his inevitable downfall. With power he becomes corrupt, a bloodthirsty tyrant and a victim of his own success. Throughout the play imagery, language and stagecraft are infused to create a malevolent and malicious image of Macbeth. With the influence of Lady Macbeth, he becomes ruthless and his vision is subverted with ambition, nothing will stand in his way. Nothing.

The quote “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is clearly suitable for Shakespeare’s eponymous protagonist Macbeth. In Act One Scene 3, Macbeth meets the witches; from this moment in the play onwards Macbeth has an insatiable lust for power. The witches predict that three events will happen, they predict he will be Thane of Glamis, then Thane of Cawdor but the last shocks him the most “all hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter”. At first Macbeth seems perplexed, however as the first prediction becomes true he decides to take matters into his own hands and murder the King Macbeth would never have killed King Duncan if the first two predictions had not come true. As he gains a higher status in society, he becomes ravenous for more.

Duncan bestows trust in Macbeth. At first Macbeth is horrified by the thought of murdering Duncan and the moral implications that go along with it, but as Lady Macbeth involves herself he becomes more eager.

Throughout the entire play there is an imagery of blood. Macbeth says "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine,  Making the green one red." He is reflecting on the murderous deeds he has carried out. Macbeth has started to realise that his guilt cannot simply be washed off. Incarnadine means to make something pink or red and here Macbeth is making the ‘sea red’;red with blood-the blood of his victims.

Lady Macbeth has a strong influence on Macbeth’s actions and is partially responsible for his corruption. When they find out that Duncan is coming to stay with them for a night, they realise the opportunity they have to eradicate him. While discussing their options Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to “look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t”. She is telling Macbeth to make sure his intentions are discreet and to put on a warm and friendly look while she takes care of Duncan.

It is clear that at this point Macbeth does not want to murder Duncan, he battles with his conscience. Shakespeare uses a soliloquy to show us Macbeth’s true feelings at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 7.  When Macbeth says “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well if it done quickly”, although ambition is spurring him on, he knows what he is planning on doing is wrong, he wants it over and done with-fast. Macbeth decides he’s not going to kill Duncan as Duncan has given him many opportunities. Lady Macbeth is outraged out this, she claims she would never have broken a promise like this, “How tender ‘tis to love the babe who milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this”. Lady Macbeth is saying that if she had taken up a task such as this one, she would have murdered her own baby rather than break a promise such as this one. Shakespeare uses an antithesis, using something as innocent as a baby and comparing

it to a murderous deed such as this one. Shakespeare also uses very menacing adjectives like “dashed” so emphasise Lady Macbeths anger and her resolute determination. The imagery used his is extremely vicious and unnatural. Lady Macbeths behaviour is very unfeminine as mothers usually have tender care for their children.  

Lady Macbeth says that she will deal with the King, however, when it comes to the murder, Duncan reminded her of her father and so she cannot kill him and so Macbeth kills him in the end. This is a significant event in the play, Macbeth has been able to kill someone who was near him, and who trusted him. He conjures the courage to kill the King but after this event people are merely removable obstacles in his ultimate conquest for victory. This shows that power has corrupted and enabled him to murder another human. This is the beginning of his demise.

Macbeth is crowned King, his hubris is clearly shown in the way that after he becomes King, he becomes even more bloodthirsty and is able to dispose of people without consulting Lady Macbeth-his beloved wife.

This is proved when Banquo and his children are murdered. At the begging of the play, Macbeth and Duncan are very good friends. It is only when Macbeth hears “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” from the witches that he begins to be wary of Banquo. He is told by the witches that he will be King. However, Macbeth’s children will not become Kings. As King, he orders the deaths of Banquo and his son an act which again would have been unthinkable before he was King-and friends this Banquo. Once again, this action proves that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Shakespeare uses a split line to show Macbeth’s paranoia when he writes “What my good lord” and then Macbeth says “Thou canst say I did; never shake”. A split line is used here as Shakespeare is emphasising that Macbeth is answering too quickly, making other around him suspicious. Paranoia is taking over, he is seeing a ghost that doesn’t exist . Power has corrupted him to such an extent, he is now hallucinating. This is a strong element of his demise, people are now apprehensive about Macbeth and his actions and some are beginning to suspect him.

Perhaps the words that give Macbeth the most power, and certainly confidence are from the witches, they say “…none of a woman born shall harm Macbeth”. This gives Macbeth a tremendous amount of self-assurance boost and he becomes arrogant and completely corrupt; he thinks he is invincible. This is a contributory in his downfall especially when he finds out that Macduff is caesarean born. The witches are also a part of Macbeth’s downfall they say "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him". Such an event like this was thought to be impossible; the witches give him sheer confidence and the feeling of being indomitable by telling him that only when a forest moves towards his castle he can be harmed. Macbeth says “Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear” proving that he thinks he in invincible.

To conclude, I agree that the quote “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” sums up Macbeth. From the very first time he sees the witches he becomes corrupt nothing is adequate for him; as he discards anyone standing in his way. Becoming King also means he has absolute power. Once King, Macbeth becomes everyone’s enemy, he in convinced he is invincible which leads to his inevitable downfall and demise.   

More about this author: Emmett Saigal

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