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The Moral Argument in "Macbeth"

Colin Jory gives a Study Guide for Shakespeare's Moral Argument in "The Scottish Play"

Shakespeare's Structuring of His Moral Argument in Macbeth
Colin H. Jory

I have a saying. If God, in a whimsical mood, appeared to someone and said that he or she could only ever read or see one Shakespearean tragedy, but could choose which, the choice should be Macbeth. Of the dramatist’s acknowledged four greatest tragedies – in alphabetical order Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth – each of the other three surpasses Macbeth in one way or another, but Macbeth is the best all-rounder. If the four plays were football teams, each of the other three would have one or two brilliant players more inspirational than any in the Macbeth team, but the Macbeth team would win most matches because of its superior spread of talent and its cohesiveness.

If Shakespeare had been asked, by someone whose discernment he trusted, what he thought he had achieved in Macbeth which was of greatest value, I have little doubt that he would have replied that he most valued its persuasiveness as a morality play. He would have affirmed that he wrote the tragedy to demonstrate the power and dignity of the human conscience by tracing how two very different, powerful personalities attempt, each in a different but character-consistent way, to defeat conscience in order to feel good while being bad, but fail. If the questioner had protested that the character development, or the dialogue, are surely the most awe-inspiring features of the play, Shakespeare would have replied that from his perspective these features ultimately matter only as means to his schematic end, which is to present convincingly his moral argument.

In teaching the play over the years I have developed and fine-tuned a set of Act-by-Act questions and directions which I think guide students to see and understand the development of the dramatic argument by focusing their attentions on the main steps by which Shakespeare advances it. I invite the present reader to work through this study-guide, responding in mind   preferably with a text of the play in hand. Although I give line numbers, and although these vary from edition to edition, I seek to obviate this problem by quoting the beginning words of the lines to which I am referring wherever there could be uncertainty. Those who teach the play might find the questions useful for their students.

ACT 1. The Theme of Temptation

1. What two victories by Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, move King Duncan in 1.1 to make him also the Thane of Cawdor?

2. What do the witches promise Macbeth?

3. What do the witches promise Banquo?

4. At what point in the action does Macbeth learn that he is now Thane of Cawdor? Why is it important that he learns it at just this point, rather than earlier or later?

5. Quote Macbeth's words which reveal when he first feels tempted to kill Duncan.

6. Quote Macbeth's words which show that he promptly rejects the temptation.

7. What is the effect on Macbeth of Duncan's announcement that he has decided to make his son Malcolm his successor as king, and to make him also the Prince of Cumberland to signify this? (1.4.35ff.)

8. What does Lady Macbeth's "milk of human kindness" soliloquy (1.5.1-31) show about both (a) her own character; and (b) Macbeth's character?

9. In two or three sentences, explain what Macbeth dreads would be the effects of his murdering Duncan on his own subsequent reign as King. (1.7.2-12)

10. In one or two sentences, summarise briefly what Macbeth is saying about Duncan in 1.7.16ff.

Act 2. The Murder of Duncan & Its Aftermath

1. Quote Banquo's words in 2.1 which show that he, like Macbeth, feels tempted to commit murder to obtain the kingship, but suppresses the temptation.

2. Quote Banquo's words in 2.1 whereby he makes clear to Macbeth that he will not collaborate with him in any evil scheme.

3. Quote Macbeth's words in 2.2 which best show how he feels about the blood on his hands.

4. What does this show about his moral character?

5. Quote Lady Macbeth's words which best show how she feels about the blood on their hands.

6. What does this show about her moral character?

ACT 3. The Murder of Banquo & Its Aftermath

1. Quote two references to Macbeth and/or Lady Macbeth having restless nights:
- one in 3.2;
- one in 3.4.

2. What does Macbeth mean by his words, "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill"? (3.2.55)

3. Macbeth had needed his wife's strong insistence before he could bring himself to murder Duncan; yet he arranges the murder of Banquo without even telling her. What does this show about his character development?

4. Explain what Macbeth means when he says:

For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I walk no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (3.4.136 39)

5. Explain what Macbeth means when he says:

Strange things I have in head which will to hand,
Which must be acted 'ere they may be scanned*. (3.4.140 41)
[*scanned = thought about]

6. Explain what Macbeth means when he says,

My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants* hard use. (3.4.143-44)
[*wants = lacks]

ACT 4. The Reunion with the Witches and the Assault on Macduff's Castle

1. Quote the two statements by the Apparition in 4.1 which convince Macbeth that he is indestructible.

2. What does Macbeth mean when he says:

From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. (4.1.146 48)

3. Explain the significance of Macbeth's exclamation,

But no more sights! (4.1.155)

ACT 5. The Catastrophe

1. Explain what Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking demonstrate about the power of conscience.

2. Quote the words in Lady Macbeth's sleep-talking which you think best reveal her subconscious torment.

3. What is the bitter truth which Macbeth is admitting in his soliloquy beginning, "My way of life...”? (4.3.22ff.)

4. Macbeth says that he has "almost forgot the taste of fear". (5.5.10ff.) What does he tell in his relevant speech that he has lost apart from his fear of doing and encountering evil?

5. In Macbeth's immortal soliloquy in 5.5.17ff. (“She should have died hereafter...”), what are his expressed or implied thoughts regarding
• his past;
• his prospects for the future;
• the hopes we all have of life?
Quote his words in your answers.

Of course, at root Macbeth is a study in natural law – in how there exist laws of right order and right behaviour, imprinted in our natures and accessible by right reason and reason-attuned intuition, the violation of which produces disorder within and without, psychological and social. However, most great dramas and novels are just such studies in one way or another, and are usually great partly because they resonate deeply with our awarenesses of human nature and natural law. Thus it is how any particular great literary work satisfies these fundamental awarenesses, rather than the mere fact that it does so, which gives it its individual value – as is manifestly the case with Macbeth.