Nature versus Nurture in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Nature versus Nurture in Shakespeare's Macbeth

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Nature versus Nurture in Macbeth

 

One of the most commonly debated issues concerning morality is the concept of nature versus nurture. Which is more integral to one’s behavior: the inborn qualities or the influences of life on the individual? Mark Twain, in his essay entitled "What Is Man?" describes humankind this way:

Man the machine--man the impersonal engine. Whatsoever a man is, is due to his MAKE, and to the INFLUENCES brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations. He is moved, directed, COMMANDED, by EXTERIOR influences--SOLELY. (What Is Man?, Mark Twain, http://underthesun.cc/Classics/Twain/whatman/Whatisman.htm)

There is some scientific basis for this claim. Studies have shown that both a person’s genetic structure and the circumstances to which he or she is subjected have bearing on how a person thinks, feels and acts. Considering this, the actions of the character Macbeth must be evaluated by his personal motivations and the external causes that may have led to them. It is established from the very beginning that Macbeth is ambitious. There can be no doubt about this. A certain level of courage accompanies his ambition as well. As a noble he is an active one, fighting against the rebel hordes and Norwegians in defense of his king, no doubt for the purpose of gaining notoriety and other rewards. This is further illustrated by his gracious acceptance of credit for his deeds. He is a political figure in the highest sense, and show ambition in this way. However, there is no sign of him altering his course of loyal nobleman until outside influences begin to intercede. The people with greatest impact on Macbeth are the witches, his wife and Lady, and King Duncan of Scotland. The witches introduce the idea, King Duncan gives personal motive, and Lady Macbeth helps along the way.

The least influential party in all of this is King Duncan. The conflict between these two is purely circumstantial, but clear enough. Macbeth is, as stated, an ambitious man. The King represents the highest position of power that Macbeth can hope to achieve. The King is also a father figure, patronizing to his subjects and expectant of total servitude.

When King Duncan thanks Macbeth for his heroic service in battle, Macbeth replies that "Your highness' part / Is to receive our duties; and our duties / Are to your throne and state children and servants" (1.

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4.23-25). Macbeth's metaphor expresses a common idea of the time: A King cares for his people as a father cares for his children; and the people are supposed to act like obedient children. (http://clicknotes.com/macbeth/Babies.html)

In this way, Duncan’s very position is likely to grate against Macbeth. His actions do nothing to endear the King to Macbeth either. While rather obnoxious and rude to Macbeth, as well as snubbing him for a shot at the kingship, His Majesty is mostly unwitting to anything that is going on. Duncan’s main influence is directly after Macbeth is honored for bravery and courage in battle, fighting for Duncan against a rebel lord. Macbeth is busily basking in his own glory and soaking up credit when Duncan basically steals his spotlight from right over his head, proclaiming Malcolm, Duncan’s son, as the heir-apparent.

"My plenteous joys, wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves in drops of sorrow. (In reference to the nobility of Macbeth. He switches gears rather quickly.) Sons, kinsmen, thanes, and you whose places are the nearest, know we will establish our state upon our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter the Prince of Cumberland;" (Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 39-45)

This action also belittles Macbeth’s achievement, since the procession of the throne is not necessarily dictated by bloodlines. Duncan is basically announcing that Macbeth, while noble, is inferior to his wonderful son Malcolm, and deserves a nice spot in the sun even though his actions were less. This is where Duncan provokes Macbeth to hate him and also points out what Macbeth must do to become King. After this provocation, Duncan proceeds to visit Macbeth’s home; blissfully unaware that anything might be amiss.

"This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses." (Act 1, Scene 6, Lines 1-3)

So, Duncan’s fate is sealed, and Macbeth slays him in order to become King. Let it never be said that Duncan did not hasten his own demise.

The other side of Duncan’s murder is due to the contribution of Lady Macbeth, who begins plotting as soon as she finds out Duncan is coming to stay. Macbeth truly found his soul mate in this sense; she certainly does think along the same vein as he.

However, the Lady doesn’t seem to be at all divided on the issue.

When Macbeth first hears the prophecies, and when the first 2/3 of it comes true, he does think of killing the king, but also, towards the end of Act 1, Scene 3, he thinks that perhaps he doesn't need to do anything to become the king : "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir."

On the other hand, Lady Macbeth, on receiving the letter telling her about the witches' prophecies, she immediately thinks that she and Macbeth will have to kill king Duncan. She also decides that Macbeth is too nice to kill the king, sayin that he "is too ful o' the milk of human kindness" and when she hears the Duncan will visit their castle that night, she immediately appeals to the evil spirits, to (ironically) give her the strength to kill the king. (http://www.planetpapers.com/count.cgi?ID=204)

She completely ignores the first influence of Duncan (assuming that she knows it at all). Her influence is completely self motivated and originated in her own mind. She takes advantage of Macbeth’s original motivation, his ambition, and uses that to decide what he must do. She also appears to be made of sterner stuff than her husband, or at least is more committed to the deed. It should be noted that she doesn’t actually have to kill Duncan; so most of the strength she has to build up goes into convincing Macbeth that it is a good idea. Her influence on Macbeth in this matter is obviously great. He does not decide to murder Duncan; Lady Macbeth does it for him. He’s not too fond of the idea, but Lady Macbeth tells him he must commit murder to fulfill his destiny. Every time he reconsiders, she gives him a pep talk. She even instructs him during the murder, drugs Duncan’s guards, and advises him on every detail of his behavior once the deed has been done. She is the foundation of all of Macbeth’s actions in this matter, and it would not be a far cry to assume that she has always had an extreme influence on him. In short, Lady Macbeth uses Duncan’s presence and the opportunity to take his life to influence Macbeth into fulfilling the witches’ prophecy and sealing his destiny.

This brings us to the witches themselves. The witches are the physical manifestation of evil itself, and they bring temptation, malice and disaster with their visitations upon hapless mortals. This best illustrated by the witches’ quote "Fair is foul and foul is fair," (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 11). This illustrates the idea that every aspect of the witches is a perversion of natural moral character. It may be said that the prophecy set forth by the witches is the single cause for the entire story of Macbeth. Without the witches, Macbeth may never have thought of taking Duncan’s life at all.

In Act 1, Scene 3, the witches tell Macbeth that he is thane of Glamis, thane of Cawdor and that he "shalt be king hereafter". Immediately after hearing the witches prophesize that he will be king, Macbeth thinks that he must kill the current king to become king himself. (http://www.planetpapers.com/count.cgi?ID=215)

Without the prophecy, even Lady Macbeth probably would not have thought of doing such a thing. It is not that the desire for Macbeth to become king would not have existed if the witches had not talked to Macbeth. The desire existed in both Macbeth and his wife naturally in their position as nobles. The significance of the prophecy is that it brought this desire to the foreground, and made it reality. The witches told Macbeth that he would be king. He took this statement for granted. For Macbeth, it suddenly changed from whether or not he would be king to how he would get to be king. And, of course, Lady Macbeth’s main reasoning in praise of the murder of the King is the fulfillment of prophecy and Macbeth’s own destiny. Without the witches to suggest the major course of action, would Macbeth ever have been so bold as to pursue his ambition? It is doubtful that he would have, with no assurance, and Macbeth would have simply been another noble. The witches’ prophecy is self-fulfilling, and could not come about had it not been made. On another point, the witches continue to influence Macbeth much later on in the play than we see evidence of either Duncan or Lady Macbeth. The witches know that Macbeth will be paranoid and kill those about him. Hecate herself says: "And you all know, security is mortals’ chiefest enemy." (Act 3, Scene 6, Lines 32-33). And the witches come to Macbeth again, speaking of his future and his downfall. Three apparitions appear before him. The first tells him to beware Macduff, who eventually leads the forces that defeat Macbeth. The second tells him "Laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." (Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 90-91). The third apparition tells him "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him." Each of these prophecies is also fulfilled in the course of the book, but they are incredibly misleading. This is done purposefully by the witches for the sake of confusion and overconfidence on Macbeth’s part, since they, as a general rule, conspire to injure mere mortals. Especially the last two prophecies instill a sense of invincibility in Macbeth, and encourage him to continue on his course just as his resolve begins to weaken. This false sense of fate and power on his part is a major factor in his downfall. So, the witches influence Macbeth by causing his ascension, his madness, and his demise.

In the case of Macbeth, first and last ruler of that name, his natural state is released and augmented by the influence of others. His King provided a reason for contempt and the opportunity to assume the throne, his wife encouraged him to step forward and fulfill his destiny, and the witches make both Macbeth and his mate believe that it is possible and inevitable. When one’s self and one’s surroundings agree with one another, a single path is opened as a possibility to the mind. Macbeth was bound to his actions as a lion is bound to kill or a bird is bound to fly. The message itself is clear enough; that no man is an island. Every person relies on the influences of those around him or her in order to form conceptions and decisions. Humans are truly social creatures, and Macbeth is a wonderful example of this communal nature of man.
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