The Problem of Individualism in Shakespeare’s Tragedy Macbeth
One of the darkest tragedies of William Shakespeare, Macbeth, continues the backbone theme of his work, which is the struggle between good and evil. The underlying tragedy does not lose its popularity in contemporary literary criticism, raising to the public attention the problem of illegal usurpation of power, the path to which is built on the corpses and blood of the innocent. Although there are multiple issues that can be discussed in the light of Macbeth, it seems that scrupulous attention should be devoted to the theme of individualism in the tragedy, as it is the core of the play. The portrayal of the title character is maintained through his choice to stick to power in order to achieve personal success. Presumably, individualism in Macbeth generates all the vivid concepts in the play and the interaction between the good and evil, in particular.
Referring to the theme of individualism, it is reasonable to point out that it profoundly relates to religion, which received particular attention. The concept of individualism as the interaction between good and evil belongs to the scope of religious studies. Therefore, Shakespeare’s tragedy is analyzed from this perspective. The literary critics emphasized, “The tragic quality of Macbeth is inseparable from the play’s imaginative eliciting of compassion on an explicitly Christian model” (Cox 225). The relation to Christianity is evident despite the high level of mysticism. The matter is that the tragedy itself considers the nature of personal interpretation of good and evil along with the ability to make the right choices and decisions. In this case, Macbeth enlarges upon the external and internal influences that frame the concept of individualism.
One may easily assume that despite religion, Macbeth may be analyzed from different perspectives. The play’s brevity does not impact its artistic and compositional advantages. In this work, the writer raises the question of the devastating influence of the struggle for power, which transforms Macbeth from a brave, valiant, and celebrated hero into a villain. In the tragedy by William Shakespeare, even more sounding becomes the constant theme of retribution. Retribution falls upon the criminals and villains; in the drama, the binding law is a kind of manifestation of the author’s optimism. His best characters often die, but the villains and criminals perish forever. In Macbeth, this law is particularly vivid. In all his works, William Shakespeare paid careful attention to the analysis of an individual and society, both in isolation and mutual interaction. The author explores both the sensual and spiritual nature of a person, the interaction of the feelings of agony, multiple peculiarities of the mental state of people in their steps and transitions, and the emergence and development of destructive power. William Shakespeare emphasizes the crucial and critical states of consciousness, the causes of the spiritual crisis, external and internal, subjective and objective. Therefore, the underlying internal conflict as the trigger of the human tragedy constitutes the main theme of Macbeth.
In the tragedy, William Shakespeare gives a complete characterization of the individualist as a person who knowingly and consistently expresses and puts own interests above those of other people. The title character, Macbeth, being seized by the ambitious passion for hurrying the release of intelligence in regard to the moral principles and rules of the household, considers them a nuisance. No matter how the protagonist frees himself from the prejudices, he is still plagued by remorse and scared by the bloody shadow of Banquo. Nevertheless, Macbeth continues to go forward; he does not think about the retreat. The character is struggling to stifle the voice of his enemies in order not to weaken his own will. The environmental conditions provoke the ambition of Macbeth, as well as promote moral degeneration and temporary triumph. In the play, individualism occupies a fundamental role and causes the appearance of other topics, namely the topics of societal interests. According to John Cox,
Macbeth’s suffering would seem to be the least enigmatic of all the suffering in the tragedies because he so clearly brings it on himself No accident of chance waylays him; no demonically cunning enemy deceives him (the weird sisters are no lago); no loved one betrays him; everything that happens to him happens because of a terrible choice he makes and continues to make, with consequences that he cannot avoid, no matter how hard he tries. (235)
In this case, Shakespeare solves the conflict between the two opposing views of human nature in the most overt way. For the first time, this conflict manifests itself in the Seventh Stage after the First Act in Macbeth’s monologue. At the end of the monologue, Macbeth says that he does not feel the effect of the other motives besides ambition, which, as he knows, is destined to destroy itself, “I have no spur // To prick the sides of my intent, but only // Vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself // And falls on the other” (Shakespeare n. p.). In such a manner, he tells Lady Macbeth not to promote the feeling of retribution. However, according to her point of view, Macbeth has the right and even the duty to act by their wishes and sweep aside all the obstacles that prevent their execution. Despite Macbeth’s words, “I dare do all that may become a man // Who dares do more is none,” she manages to convince her husband in his individualistic power.
The murder of Duncan causes the struggle between the two opposing points of view on people in Macbeth’s soul. According to the first, a person is an individualist, who is primarily protecting own interests; according to the other, a person, especially as a member of the society, is obliged to serve its interests. The underlying struggle enslaves Macbeth. He experiences ambiguous feelings and tries to reject the importance of humane feelings of remorse. In killing Duncan, Macbeth acts by his specific point of view on human rights. This event highlights the assumption that the atrocity can be justified by a person because of a self-driven sense of individualistic duty. It seems that at the murder scene, Macbeth acts not only because of the desire for the crown but also in accordance with the full confidence that he is obliged to follow his own desires and wishes, thus, forming a strict system of personal values. The question of what a man actually is, once again comes to the fore in the scene of the murder of Banquo. In his monologue, Macbeth states that the murder may help identify a person according to his merits, applying this particular context to himself. In this manner, the development of the internal conflict is supported by a system of images from the animal world that is playing a very important role in building the parallels between individualism and animal instincts. This parallel is first introduced by Lady Macbeth:
What beast wast then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man,
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. (Shakespeare n. p.)
The abstract mentioned above is a sheer irony but at this point, Lady Macbeth sheds light on the truth, of which she is still unaware. Once again, the theme of the human internal conflict appears at the climax of the play – during the feast. At this time, Macbeth is sure that he no longer controls the circumstances that he has created. The appearance of a ghost contributes to the understanding of this situation. On the feast, Macbeth’s intentions turn into their opposite. The fact that the wishes expressed aloud completely contradict his true intentions and immediately come into force adds irony to the underlying transformation. Under the influence of Macbeth’s wife, the title character recalls that he should play a different role according to another point of view on the man, and as a result of acts committed by him, it is even more difficult to avoid individualism.
The composition of the Macbeth tragedy is different from the previous Shakespeare tragedies: it imparts a brief, concentrated exposure, and prolonged exposition. It shows that the title character makes a tragic mistake not only once; thus, he is disturbing the peace and order in himself and the world. In Macbeth, there is a combination of a hero and an anti-hero, the protagonist and antagonist, whereas the latter becomes the protagonist in the course of the tragedy. In addition, William Shakespeare introduces some fantastic images into the tragedy. It is not just a ghost of killed Banquo but also the characters of the Witches. In this case, William Shakespeare adopted the traditional ideas of his era, as well as the old Scottish legend.
Macbeth himself embodies the combination of the wonderful and terrible. The play reveals the tragedy of a majestic warrior, who descended to murder because of the angle and destruction of innocent children and women. Derek Cohen asserts, “Violence is the heart and soul of Macbeth. It permeates the action and the narrative; it clings to the characters; it infects and controls the imagination of each of the personae” (55). Although the underlying suggestion is true, the title character only highlights all the contradictions of human nature, among which the positive features can be easily found. The portrayal of the Witches can consider the antagonists of some general metaphysical sense. They are some otherworldly supernatural forces that decided to prove the relativity of the moral criteria in the person’s life by blurring the line between the vile and beautiful, good and evil in the human soul. Macbeth is the object of their influence. On the other hand, the Witches converted Macbeth’s innermost desires and passiveness into conscious, purposeful, and effective steps. Their participation makes the man put a seal on his ambitious desires, describing them as being of the dark and evil origin, as well as demonic and fatal to the consciousness of humanity.
There are many film adaptations of the tragedy; they translate Shakespeare’s literary world into a visual picture. Much can be said about the advantages and disadvantages of every adaptation as they are totally different from each other. Nevertheless, it is still reasonable to admit that every adaptation considers the most vivid problem of individualism, simply because the producer’s cannon leave out the internal conflict of the hero, as it plays a crucial role in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Seemingly, Polanski’s version can be regarded as the most successful one due its complexity and connections preserved between Macbeth’s exposure to the evil forces.
Polanski’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is almost perfect as it avoids the unexpected changes in the characters. Moreover, the plot does not interfere with the original introduction by means of unnecessary characters and plot conflicts, leaving the last word to the author of the literary masterpiece. The absence of some scenes, in particular, the appearance of Hecate, in no way affects the identity of the semantic content of the play; on the contrary, in the context of the film, it seems even more appropriate.
The panorama of medieval Scotland, grieving under the restless wind and singing of the bitter tears of the sky, betrays an ominous sound, heralding the imminent collapse of the newly elected king in the fatal embrace of fate. Therefore, the concept of individualism is also preserved and even emphasized by the film effects and successful portrayal of Macbeth’s monologue. Although the mysticism of the Shakespearean legend is losing its ground to a bloody naturalism, this fact only enhances the idea of individualism. Polanski deliberately portrays the remains of the acts and scenes of the unbridled cruelty peculiar to Macbeth in a very realistic manner. The portrayal of such scenes shows that individualism reaches the level of unacceptability, which at once becomes evident to a spectator.
Apart from Polanski’s adaptation, one cannot forget the recent one, which is a modern version of the tragedy of Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel. The modern perspective chosen applies the existentialist philosophy that may be critical of Shakespeare’s character. The internal conflict of the character exists only due to the assumption that a person has the value of the personal choice to decide whether to act on the evil or good side or both of them.
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Therefore, it can be easily assumed that Macbeth is a magnificent tragedy of titanic personality, which had the same opportunity to win, as well as to lose, but the valor in the absence of wisdom brought it to a complete alienation from the people. The plot based on the usurpation of power is cross-cutting in the works of William Shakespeare. If a character in “Macbeth” is condemned as an absolute evil, the story of usurpation of authority has a happy ending: the legitimate authority in Scotland is restored. Shakespeare’s life according to the principle of triad movement, order – chaos – order, is not broken. While the tragedy of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” reveals the great power of evil, it is the most optimistic of all four great tragedies written by the author. Optimism lies not only in the assumption that the tyranny was defeated by Macbeth but also in the disclosure and understanding of the internal conflict in the mind of the protagonist.
In conclusion, the problem of individualism in Macbeth is realized through the prism of the title character’s internal conflict, which is based on the interaction between good and evil. The concept of individualism constitutes the core of the tragedy; thus, it is translated into many visual adaptations that enhance it by means of portraying the hero’s monologues. Individualism generates all the potential themes in the tragedy related to the nature of personal choice, values, and beliefs.