The Problem of Power in Shakespeare's Macbeth

The Problem of Power in Shakespeare's Macbeth

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The Problem of Power in Macbeth

   "Power poisons every man who covets it for himself" (Chute 126). In the Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, the character, Macbeth, kills the respected King Duncan in his quest for power. However, during his rule, Macbeth demonstrates that he is incapable of mastering the power and responsibilities of being a king. His drive for power and maintaining his power is the source of his downfall. Macbeth is not meant to have authority beyond Thane of Cawdor. When Macbeth is king, he does not use his authority judiciously.


Macbeth's eventual demise is by virtue of his obsession for power and retaining his power. Before he desired the power of being king, Macbeth was a respected noble. He was labeled, "brave Macbeth" (Act I, scene, ii, line 16) for his actions in battle. During a conversation between Duncan and the Captain, the Captain describes how Macbeth brutally slew the rebel Macdonwald:


Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,

Which smoked with bloody execution,

... Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,

And fixed his head upon our battlements (act I, scene, ii, lines 17- 23).


In his speech, the Captain describes Macbeth's violence to indicate what a good warrior he is thus showing that he has respect for Macbeth. Once Macbeth became king, he became overpowered with keeping his authority. Macbeth realized that he was being used just so that Banquo's sons can inherit the throne:



They hailed him father to a line of kings.

Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,

And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,

Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,

No son of mine succeeding (act III, scene 1, lines 60-64).


Macbeth feeling this way convinces a pair of men to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. By having Banquo and Fleance murdered, Macbeth believes that it will prevent Banquo's sons from becoming king. Macbeth also hires the murderers to kill Macduff's family. This demonstrates Macbeth's obsession because it indicates that Macbeth values his power over his friends. His obsession with power causes Macbeth to feel guilty and lose his sanity. Macbeth's guilt and loss of sanity is indicated in the hallucinations he experiences. His first hallucination occurs just before killing King Duncan. Macbeth sees "A dagger of the mind, a false creation" (act II, scene I, line 38).

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The other hallucination Macbeth has occurs after Banquo is dead. Macbeth imagines that Banquo is taunting him during his banquet. Macbeth, being king, is overconfident which causes him to lose reasoning. His overconfidence comes from the witches' three prophesies, which is their intent, "As by strength of their illusion, / Shall draw him on to his confusion" (act III, scene vi, lines 27-28). He suspects that Macduff is against him and he knows that Macduff went to England; but instead of dealing with Macduff, Macbeth plans to have Macduff's castle attacked and kill his family. This demonstrates his loss of common sense because killing Macduff's family does not accomplish anything but add to Macduff's hatred towards Macbeth. It is also evident that Macbeth has lost reasoning when he states: "Bring me no more reports, let them fly all. / Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane (act V, scene iii, lines 1-2). Throughout this act Macbeth is overconfident; he keeps on repeating the witches prophesies. Macbeth does not become alarmed until he hears that Birnam wood is moving, now he is left with the second prophesy that "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (act IV, scene I, lines 80-81).


Macbeth was not meant to have the power beyond Thane of Cawdor. He did not hold the correct bloodline. In Macbeth's time the title of king was inherited, not taken by force. People were loyal to the king because he was regarded as closest to god. Thus, Macbeth murdering Duncan and assuming the throne disturbed the chain of being and nature. After Duncan's death it is said that "the heavens, as troubled with man's act" (act II, scene iv, line 4). This is symbolized by such unnatural occurrences as a hawk being killed by an owl, the horses turning wild and breaking out of their stalls. Because Macbeth became king unnaturally, his power is not authentic. The real king is Malcom. By the end of the play, nature is restored when Macbeth loses his power and Malcom becomes king. Nature rising up against Macbeth is symbolized by Birnam rising to Dunsinane, where Macbeth's castle is. It is to be noted that Malcom III, Duncan's son is the one who killed Macbeth in battle and ruled to his death.


Macbeth does not use his power as king appropriately. He abuses his power and rules by an iron fist. Malcom comments that Macbeth is a "tyrant, whose sole names blisters our tongues" (act IV, scene iii, line 12). He also comments that Macbeth is treacherous and Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke; / It weeps, it bleeds, and each new a gash/ Is added to her wounds (act IV, scene iii, lines 39-41). Generally, Malcom is saying that his country is suffering under Macbeth's rule. Duncan "Was a most sainted King" (Act 4, scene iii, line 109) whom his people loved. This is how a king should be, Macbeth, however, can't even compare to the way Duncan was loved. It was not because Duncan was a natural king; it was the way he ruled. Macbeth ruled forcefully and thus, was not as highly regarded as Duncan.


Macbeth is unable to control the power and responsibilities of being king. His drive for power and maintaining his power is the reason for his downfall. Macbeth, because he does not hold the correct bloodline, is not meant to be king. Macbeth also abuses his authority, and causes his people to lose respect for him. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton).


Works Cited and Consulted:


Chute, Lily B. "Macbeth : A Study in Power." Readings on Macbeth. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999. 126-35.


Foakes, Francis. "A New Perspective of Macbeth." Readings on Macbeth.   Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999. 58-64.


Gill, Roma, ed. Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.


Kinney, Arthur F. ed. William Shakpespeare: the Tragedies. Boston: Hall and Company, 1985.


Leong, Virginia. Hamlet and Shakespeare Links. 14 Apr. 2000  <>.


Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Elements of Literature. Sixth ed. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1997.


Wills, Gary. "The Historical Context of Macbeth." Readings on Macbeth. Ed.  Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999. 30-37.

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