Macbeth Fear And Conscience (1) Profr. Federico Pat n November, 1997 From the first time Macbeth appears with the witches and Banquo, the reader could notice a kind of tension in the scene. The three witches anticipate Macbeth’s future and he seems to be anxious of what is going to happen with the prophecies. But why is he so anxious to confirm the witches’ words, especially the third prophecy which proclaims him king? I presume that it is because that idea was already in his mind. His ambition and the idea of becoming the king of Scotland would lead him to his first crime, murdering Duncan. But Macbeth fears.
He is afraid of what he might do. Murdering Duncan, he shall be king and will fulfill his deepest desires: “Stars, hide your fires/ Let not light see my black and deep desires” (I, iv, 51-52). But at this point of the play Macbeth does have the conscience of what is evil and what is good. He knows that murdering Duncan will be an act of dishonor and for a moment he will give up thinking of his ambitious thoughts. But the process of committing the murder will be long: the very thought of the deed horrifies him and, in order to succeed, Lady Macbeth will support him and give him the courage to act.
He will dare to “do all that may become a man” (I, vii, 46). Now he is strong enough to achieve the deed though his fear accompanies all the way, disguised in the form of a bloody dagger which in fact leads him to Duncan’s chamber. He is so terrified after committing his first crime that Lady Macbeth has to finish the plan leaving the daggers to the grooms because he cannot come back to the crime scene. Now that the deed is “done”, that battle between his soul and his ambition has begun. Little by little he will lose the fear that overtakes him but at the same time, Macbeth will lose the conscience of his actions.
Killing Duncan will lead him to his death. In fact I presume that with Duncan’s death, Macbeth has died too. Macbeth has lost the courtly values he had before Duncan’s murder and also has realized the evil he can command in his heart. “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (I, vii, 82). He is a step forward of losing his manhood.
The process of this first crime is almost finished, his fears have already been controlled, and his conscience almost overpowered. Years go by and Macbeth, now the King of Scotland, will continue with his second crime. Willard Farnham, in his book, says about the process between the first and the second murder: “The quality of Macbeth’s recovery from the breakdown after the murder of Duncan is indicated by his ability to form a plot for the assassination of Banquo and Fleance without the spiritual support of Lady Macbeth.” The importance is stressed on Macbeth’s present and anything from the past or the future which obscures that present must be erased. Banquo is his next victim, who reminds him that past in which the witches prophecies declare that he “shalt get kings, though thou be none” (I, iii, 66); and threats his future as a king. At this point, Macbeth knows the sufferings he had to endure while murdering Duncan with his own hands.
This time without the intellectual support of Lady Macbeth, he will give orders to murder Banquo and his son, so that his hands will not be tainted with blood again. But his fear remains with him, though he does not hesitate killing them. His fear will appear this time after the deed with the apparition of the ghost of Banquo at the banquet. The ghost reminds him his guilt and his punishment will rise to the surface by means of his not-so-well-dominated fear. But Macbeth has proved to himself that no matter how great his fear is, he can control it and in only one scene he will confront this new proof of strength, almost killing the conscience of his past and present deeds.
Now the ghost of Banquo and Macbeth will battle for recognition of their soul, even when Macbeth is no longer a living man. Farnham says in this regard: “As Macbeth is put to the test by the ghost of Banquo, we realize that between his first and second crime he has grown greatly in criminal fortitude and that now, having recovered from one severe breakdown in courage, he meets another by drawing upon his underlying strength much more quickly than before.” Therefore, in act III, scene iv, the second process of Macbeth’s murder comes to a resolution. In one scene he recognizes through Banquo’s ghost his deepest fear and guilt and fights against them. The reader sees a Macbeth saying to the ghost filled by fear: “Thou canst not say I did it” (III, iv, 49), passing to confront the apparition with: “Why, what care I if thou canst nod! Speak too!” (III, iv, 69) and afterwards: “Avaunt, and quit my sight!” (III, iv, 93) with a risen strength and dominating his fear until at last he says: “Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mockery, hence! Why, so; being gone, / I am a man again.” (III, iv, 106-108) But Macbeth has lost his manhood, remaining by contrast the “horrible shadow” of Banquo now embodied in him. The “horrible shadow” that will commit the next crimes and which at the end will recognize him as a “walking shadow”. After the second series of prophecies of the witches, Macbeth is more than ever committed to his dark desires for ambition and power.
From now on Macbeth will continue with his crimes without any conscience of his evil doing; he has “almost forgot the taste of fears” (V, v, 9) says after his third murder: Macduff’s wife and children. This last murder will be committed without surrendering to his fear and without the conscience of its punishment. In regard to the subject, Matthew Proser points out: “With this crime conscience is all but repressed completely. No ‘horrid image’ raises its head. Macbeth’s only acknowledgments of conscience are reflected in the haste imposed upon the decision and in his failure to commit the deed himself.” Although he is afraid in the deepest part of his sterile heart, the tyrant will not stop even when his present life is meaningless, “a tale told by an idiot” (V, v, 26-27). His past full of evil deeds is no longer important either because he cannot feel.
now his present and future demand more strength until “Birman Wood remove to Dunsinane,(he) cannot taint with fear” (V, iii, 2). Fear: the sole emotion Macbeth can or perhaps could feel until his tragic end. His last battle, the battle which will lead him to his death, has come with full recognition of his own fate. Birman Wood has been removed to the castle and Macduff –the man of “none of woman born” (IV, i, 79)– will kill him. But Macbeth is no longer the man unnerved by fear of the beginning of the play, supported by a wife who at the end could not relieve her conscience from her guilt.
Macbeth, the “walking shadow”, recognizing his end, will carry his meaningless life and fight. At the end, the reader will hear a Macbeth saying: “I will not yield” (V, vi, 66). His conscience never leads him to repentance. Macbeth’s process of discovering his own fear and confronting it comes to a resolution at the end of the play. Macbeth, in order not to surrender to the forces of his own fear will try to show a strength that cost him his conscience over his evil deeds and, in the long run, his own heart.
The thane of the beginning, the king after, and, at the end, the tyrant will fall down by his own pressure for his sense of courage. A courage disguised under the mask of madness which will remain with him until his death. Since I chose to write about Macbeth’s fear and conscience, a very important question rose in my mind: Why can the reader feel sympathy for his “deadly butcher”? I presume that the answer lies on the way the hero leads us in his world and how he confronts his weakness, the “evolution” or perhaps “degeneration” of his perspective of evil and good and, of course, his perspective of what is free will and fate. I would like to end with a quotation from Proser’s essay “The Manly Image”: “In the end what is heroic about him is his refusal at the mercy of other outside himself, to passively will away his death to agents of any mysterious force as he had self-deceptively attempted to will away the lives of others. Having chosen himself as his own god and killed without mercy, he ironically becomes subject to the rigor of his own judgment, or perhaps misjudgment, and at the same time, his own blind justice.” Bibliography Farnham, Willard.
Shakespeare Tragic Frontier. Oxford: Basil Blackwell & Mott, 1973. Proser, Matthew. The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies. Princeton University Press, USA, 1965.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Penguin Books, England, 1967. Willard Farnham, Shakespeare’s Tragic Frontier, p.122. Ibid., p.123. Matthew Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies, p.82.