Summary: How Does Shakespeare Present Conflict in Macbeth

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In Macbeth conflict is present during the entire play from the beginning to the end. Conflict impacts the plot greatly both externally and internally within the characters. The play begins during a battle in which Macbeth is successful and finishes during a siege on Macbeth’s castle in which he is killed. The conflicts reviewed will be: Macbeth’s connection to the Supernatural that begins early on in the play, Macbeth’s internal conflict in which he struggles between good and evil, the ever-increasing conflict between Macbeth and Macduff, as well as the conflicts within Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s marriage.

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The relationship between the supernatural and Macbeth is the first conflict presented by Shakespeare. It was believed in Shakespearean times that if you were to meddle with witchcraft you were guaranteed to go to hell and there was no way of repenting of this sin. This relationship forms the basis of the entire play. When they first meet, Macbeth immediately tries to be more dominant than the witches even though Shakespeare presents that they are in control; “Stay, you imperfect speakers…You owe this…Speak I charge you” He tries to command the witches and gets angry as they vanish. The Witches put the idea of betrayal into Macbeth’s head and he cannot forget it “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes so my single state of man, that function is smothered in surmise.” This shows that the witches have already tricked him. When Macbeth sees the dagger, Shakespeare writes “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” this shows his curiosity and confusion over it. This vision could have been created by the Witches to encourage him to kill Duncan and to lead him further down the path of witchcraft. They also could have created the ghost of Banquo at the dinner. When they next meet Macbeth greets them with “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags” This is an aggressive greeting and it shows he want to be in control of this meeting. He continues to use imperative verbs to show his dominance “I conjure you… answer me,”, “Tell me,” The witches ignore his demands though, showing they are really in control as they are commanding him in what to do by saying “Say, if th’ hadst rather hear it from our mouths or from our masters?” this line shows that they are impatient with Macbeth and his hesitation to act shown by them threatening him with a higher power. The witches lead him further towards hell by showing him three apparitions which they know the true meaning of but however do not reveal the meaning to Macbeth. They are tricking him into believing he is unstoppable by saying “For none of women born, will harm Macbeth,” which in the end will lead him into fighting Macduff.

Arguably the greatest conflicts presented by Shakespeare are Macbeth’s inner struggles, as they caused a chain reaction of events. These conflicts begin early on in the play after he is visited by the witches, where he says, “this supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good.” This shows that he has immediate second thoughts about what he should do, the alliteration adds emphasis to his uncertainties and those two words. When Macbeth is contemplating whether or not to kill Duncan, he shows uncertainty in himself many times saying “If it were done, when tis done, then ‘twere well, if it were done quickly” this means that he would do it quickly, but he uses “if,” so he is unsure if he would be able to do it. He then says “If th’ assassination… success” which means that if he succeeded, he would certainly become king however then contradicting himself by saying “Might be the be-all and the end-all”. This shows his concern and lowers his confidence in his ability to commit the murder, for he then says “Commends th’ ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our own lips,” which shows that he’s decided against it as he feels something bad might happen to him of his own making and adds to the theme of evil that is presented throughout Macbeth. Continuing on he says “[Duncan’s] here in double trust: First I am his kinsman, and his subject,” Therefore making the murder particularly treacherous. He tries to push the thoughts further out of his head, but he can’t, this is suggested by Shakespeare when he writes “how is’t with me, when every noise appals me” this shows that he is angry with himself because he can’t stop thinking about it and is agitated. At the end of Act 1 he’s been persuaded to do it and is now set on it; “I am settled…terrible feat”. In these times, the divine right of kings was believed by all therefore regicide was one of the worst sins that could be committed. Before committing the murder, he sees a floating dagger which could be a representation of his conscience. He believes that his senses are playing tricks on him in the line written “Mine eyes are the fools o’ th’ other senses”. After the murder, Macbeth goes back into a state of panic and regret saying, “will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No”. Shakespeare uses the metaphor to suggest that he will never be clear of this deed.

Another key conflict which also triggered Macbeth’s downfall is the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. In the times the play was set the women and men had very different responsibilities. The women were responsible for domestic duties and child rearing and weren’t generally involved in men’s business but in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is seen as more dominant and controlling in their relationship. When Macbeth decides not to carry through with killing Duncan, he seemed adamant, but his wife emotionally blackmailed him into doing it; “Was the Hope drunk… live a coward.” Shakespeare suggests that she is making him feel weak and that he will live the rest of his life a coward, a great insult for a powerful soldier. Lady Macbeth implies that she is greater than him, which goes against typical statuses in 17th century relationships. Lady Macbeth demonstrates her toughness with the words “I have given suck… I would have plucked my nipple and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this”. Her sentiments shock the audience as well as emphasising the fact that she is so cold-hearted. Motherly love is meant to be the strongest bond therefore proving to Macbeth that he is weaker than her. She continues to incite him to do it and overcome his doubt by saying “But screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail”. When Macbeth refuses to take the daggers back after the murders he gets scolded again by Lady Macbeth where she tells him “You unbend your noble strength” and “Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.” Lady Macbeth is calling him a child for the way he is behaving. Lady Macbeth is ashamed at how Macbeth has been acting. “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,” again showing who is more dominant between them. Macbeth refused to tell Lady Macbeth his plans for Banquo’s death. Afterwards they begin to become further and further apart; at the banquet, when he sees the ghost, Lady Macbeth asks, “Are you a man?” This shows her patronizing nature, as if she is treating Macbeth like a child again. His withdrawal from her is subtly presented by Shakespeare as they do not appear on stage together after Act 3.

A final key conflict which took place in Macbeth is the vicious relationship between Macbeth and Macduff. Kings were expected to possess certain qualities such as: bravery, loyalty, commitment, confidence and honesty. Their relationship was uneasy from the start of the play possibly due to their clashing characteristics. During the first few scenes it seemed that Macbeth possessed the qualities expected of a great king such as his bravery, nobility and strength which is presented by Shakespeare when he writes” O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!” this shows that he was admired by others, notably the King. Although as time went on it was shown that Macbeth was actually disloyal, paranoid and a poor leader when Macduff calls him “Devilish Macbeth,” At this time comparing someone to the devil was very serious as everyone was very religious. Macduff, on the other hand, acted on what he thought was best for his country and not what would get him the most personal gain. This is shown in the play when Macduff leaves his family unprotected to seek help for his country. After visiting the witches Macbeth believes that he can’t be killed but he says, “I’ll make assurance double sure,” This shows he is quick to make his mind up about killing MacDuff even though he thinks Macduff can’t harm him. Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England and becomes paranoid and angry at Macduff “Seize upon Fife; give to th’ edge o’ th’ sword. His wife, his babes and all unfortunate souls.” Macbeth knows that Macduff is not there; this shows his poor leadership and ruthlessness. This is an example of how his character has deteriorated into having characteristics of a poor king, but also a merciless tyrant. When Macduff learns that his family had been slaughtered, he loses any sense of respect that he had for Macbeth and only calls him “Black Macbeth,”, “The Devil,” and “Tyrant,” Once again going back to the religious theme that anything linked to the devil is evil, and contrasts Macbeth to Macduff and his devotion to his Country. This shows that he doesn’t think Macbeth deserves to be known by name and that he only has anger and hatred for him. When they finally meet at the end of the play, they have a fight which is an example of physical conflict between them, Macbeth feels guilt and regret; “my soul is too much charg’d with blood of thine already,” Macduff, however, is fuelled only by resentment and pain replying “My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain,” which is an example of personification to show Macduff’s anger and how his sword is alive with his vengeance. Macduff doesn’t want to speak to Macbeth and only wants to fight. Macbeth tries to fight until the end displaying honour and bravery, which are characteristics of a good king that he possessed only in his final moments. The audience would support Macduff as Shakespeare has demonstrated that Macbeth had gone against divine order by murdering a king (which is blasphemy as the King is God’s representative). Macbeth had also killed a defenceless family putting his own ambition ahead of goodness and duty.

Shakespeare creates a strong sense of physical conflict but perhaps more important is Macbeth’s internal struggle, as it forms the groundwork of the play. Shakespeare uses conflict vastly during this play as it keeps the audience on the edge of the seat and engaged throughout. Shakespeare shows how Macbeth’s character diminishes from the valiant soldier he once was to ruin and even lunacy at the end of the play, this is suggested when Malcolm says, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues”. In Act 5 the conflict and tension has built up greatly resulting in the final battle in which Macbeth becomes ever more desperate, eventually resulting in the victory of Macduff.    

Works cited

  1. Greenblatt, S. (2005). Shakespeare's freedom. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Bradley, A. C. (1905). Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Macmillan.
  3. Bloom, H. (2008). Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books.
  4. Kermode, F. (2000). Shakespeare's language. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  5. Muir, K. (2005). Introduction. In K. Muir (Ed.), Macbeth (pp. 1-87). Arden Shakespeare.
  6. Mullaney, S. (1994). The place of the poor in Shakespeare's plays. The University of North Carolina Press.
  7. Bate, J. (2009). Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. Random House.
  8. Garber, M. (2010). Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. Routledge.
  9. Honigmann, E. A. J. (1996). Shakespeare: The 'lost years'. Manchester University Press.
  10. Thompson, A. R. (1987). Shakespeare and the idea of the play. Chatto & Windus.

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