Shakespeare is believed to have penned Macbeth between 1603 and 1607, during the early years of the reign of James I, the former king of Scotland. It is one of his most powerful, intriguing, and heart-wrenching plays, replete with murder, passion, sorcery, and madness. In his depiction of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare demonstrates the corruption inherent to the struggle for political power through illegitimate means, and the subsequent toll exacted on the transgressors (namely, the loss of all that was once dear to Macbeth and his descent into the darkest depths of insanity). Macbeth is a thrilling and bloody play, certain to entertain even the most skeptical of viewers. And yet, far beyond that, it provides a glimpse of Shakespeare’s political leanings and ideals, as well as his beliefs regarding the ability of the performing arts to carry out a political function; that is, the belief that theatre provides society with a vehicle for commenting upon social issues and injustices, and for provoking discussion about such issues. In his portrayal of tyranny and the necessary fall of the tyrant in Macbeth, Shakespeare is able to comment on the nature of political power and the means by which it is corrupted and degraded, as well as to spark discourse about the relationship between power, morality, and humanity.
Over the course of the play, Macbeth’s desire for the honors he believes due to him as a result of his military accomplishments causes him to strive to take the throne, even without true legitimacy. Shakespeare takes great care to develop Macbeth’s character in such a way so that the audience recognizes the initial nobility of his cause, which serves to further highlight his fall from grace. Macbeth’s initial murder of Duncan causes him to have a severe psychological reaction, and the guilt he feels over this and his other crimes eats away at him throughout the entire play. To keep himself from succumbing to that guilt, he refuses to let himself dwell on it, saying, “To know my deed ‘twere best not know myself” (II.ii.72). However, as the guilt continues to plague him, he eventually convinces himself that he has given his soul to the devil, at which point he seems to lose all distinction between bad and terrible, justifying his actions then by saying, “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.iv.135-137). In this way, Shakespeare depicts the progression of a just man who becomes an unjust man, damned by his ambitious nature. The tragedy lies in the paradox that the actions that enabled Macbeth to achieve and maintain his power were ultimately self-defeating, for in the process of becoming a tyrant, he lost every reason for wanting that power, and the true tragedy was not in his death but in the inner destruction of his soul.
Macbeth has surprising depth and complexity to his mind, and is hyperaware of the guilt that accompanies his actions. Shakespeare always incorporates into his tragic heroes the exact traits that necessitate their tragic end: Macbeth’s ambition causes him to take power, which was his goal, but it also leads him to become a tyrant, and therefore ultimately causes his downfall. For Shakespeare, tyranny is an unavoidable and very real state of being, not just in politics but on a personal level as well. He understands it to be the greatest political danger, lying at the heart of human unhappiness and suffering. To expose the dangers of such a state, Shakespeare portrays tyranny as a tragic way of life, as shown by the unfortunate fate of Macbeth and his wife. He is able to use theatre to fulfill a political function of enlightening the audience of the dangers of tyranny and of providing them with the means of reflecting upon their own society and form of government.
Macbeth is exciting and thrilling for the audience, filled with fast-moving plot developments, intensely emotional scenes, violence, murder, and overshadowing it all, the dawning realization that Macbeth is doomed from the very first moment of the play. Furthermore, it contains some of the most moving and powerful passages of verse ever written, such as Lady Macbeth’s monologue describing the indelible stains upon her hands after she has committed her atrocious crimes. In this play, the true extent of Shakespeare’s genius is readily apparent, both in his command of the English language, and in his complex treatment of human nature, fate, and society.