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Emotions and Outward Actions in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Essay

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Updated: Oct 13th, 2021

When someone is feeling emotions like love or guilt, these usually do not necessarily manifest in a person’s facial expressions or actions. Comparing an actual situation to a theatrical setting would entirely be different when it comes to the subject of emotions. Actors and actresses need to manifest their inward emotions through their outward actions and dialogue in order for the audience to fully grasp the emotions that their character is going through. In this regard, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the relationship of inward emotions and outward actions is relevant in fully conveying the interplay of themes in this tragedy.

As one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, Macbeth weaves a complex scenario about how a Scottish nobleman was lured by his intense ambitions in murdering King Duncan. His intense ambitions were even more fired up by the prophecies of the witches who told him that he was fated to be the king. Even his wife, Lady Macbeth, persuaded him with this evil plan. Upon leading the Scottish army to their victory over the forces of Norway, King Duncan granted Macbeth a favour of staying with him in the castle. In this regard, Lady Macbeth saw this “favour” as a great opportunity in making the prophecies of the witches come to fruition. Giving in to his desires for power and wealth, Macbeth murders the gracious King Duncan. To make matters worse, Macbeth pointed the accusing finger to King Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain as they flee from Scotland.

Macbeth told everyone that the sons orchestrated the assassination. Macbeth then assumes the kingship, just as the witches foretold. However, another problem arose as the witches also prophesied that although his friend Banquo will not be king, his descendants will hold the Scottish throne. Worried about this scenario. Macbeth hires assassins to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance. Banquo is slain, but Fleance escapes. The witches then warn Macbeth that another nobleman, Macduff, is also a threat to his power. Macbeth attempts murder again, only to find that Macduff has fled to England. Angry at the nobleman’s escape, Macbeth has the wife and children of Macduff brutally murdered. In England, Macduff meets with Malcolm and decides that Malcolm is worthy of ruling Scotland. Together they gather an army and march against Macbeth. A guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth loses her sanity and dies as the opposing army surrounds the castle. Macduff kills Macbeth in combat, and Malcolm is crowned king of Scotland.

The audience of Macbeth would somehow question the relevance of several actions and dialogues in this play in determining its tragic outcome. In his article, Oatley (2006) explored the inner emotions and outward behaviour of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. He said that any character exhibited in the plays by Shakespeare has been conceived as “a centre that grows from emotionally significant events that touch the person”. Oatley (2006) expounded that “one important feature of character in this sense is described by Frank Kermode (2000), who discusses how Shakespeare’s metaphor for the inwardness of a person was substance” and he discussed that “the complexity of character is influenced by emotionally important events in a person’s biography”. In the case of Macbeth, all his outward actions are the result of his guilt and these actions make the audience seem to identify with this violent murderer. In this case, Shakespeare’s drama allows spectators to imaginatively enter the recesses of Macbeth’s mind and to associate their feelings of his guilt. Ultimately, this will lead the audience to vicariously find in his defeat the possibility for the character’s redemption.

For instance, Cahn (2000) deemed that the audience can feel the resignation of the character as he becomes “emotionally deadened”, even at his wife’s death:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing (5.5.24-28)

In this statement, Macbeth exhibited his helplessness about his real fate. As he felt he literally discarded his morals when he connived and murdered an innocent person, he saw himself unredeemable. Macbeth revealed that he has no concern for anything or anyone. His life is now meaningless because he gave in to extreme ambitions. He was foolish enough to give in to the prophecies of the witches to become a man bereft of morals and trapped in the quandary of evil, hate and paranoia.

Keller (2005) also mentioned the relationship of inner thoughts to consummate outward actions. In Macbeth’s statement “We will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31), Keller (2005) thought that Macbeth “has weighed ambition against reasons not to act and has settled on what most observers would call the right decision”. Keller (2005) believed that “Lady Macbeth performs the role of a dialogue partner” and the audience “can take her as representing either the outward or the inward partner”. In this scene, Lady Macbeth presents conscientiousness into Macbeth as she asked:

Art thou afeard

To be the same in thine own act and valour,

As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that

Which thou esteem the ornament of life,

And live a coward in thine own esteem (1.7.39-43)

In this regard, Keller (2005) felt that Lady Macbeth only pushed on from Macbeth’s previous ethical thinking. The ongoing debate of what is good and evil has transpired in the character’s mind in weighing down options if Macbeth will pursue the murderous plan. As his extreme desires overshadowed what was good, Macbeth extinguished his ethical thoughts dramatically and ignored the consequences or the structures of his relationship with King Duncan.

Corollary with this, we can say that Macbeth’s actions are determined by forces both inside and outside of him. Bradley (2004) stated that “the inward powers of the soul answer in their essence to vaster powers without, which support them and assure the effectiveness of their exertion.” In his analysis of the play’s characters, Bradley (2004) felt that Macbeth displayed “the imagination of a poet” and suggested that it is this imagination that allows him a degree of sympathy for the brutal acts he made because of his blind ambition. Bradley (2004) concluded that “indeed, whether Shakespeare would have introduced prophecies of Macbeth’s deeds, even if it had been convenient to do so; he would probably have felt that to do so would interfere with the interest of the inward struggle and suffering”.

Another important aspect of the inward-outward relationship in Macbeth is exhibited by King Duncan’s “outward gestures of friendship” that presented a downside in his character to become vulnerable in the tragedy. Cahn (2000) noted that Duncan initially spoke of the Thane of Cawdor, who was earlier executed because he was a traitor: “He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust? (1.4.13-14). Although this was an inimitable sign of impending danger, Duncan dismissed his concerns for trust and “even as he approaches his cousin Macbeth’s home, where the King is soon to be killed”:

This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses (1.6.1-3).

What we can draw from this scene is that actions can be deceiving and characters are “most deceived by appearances”. Even Macbeth was not spared from this dilemma. Cahn (2000) mentioned that from the earliest, ambiguous predictions by the witches, Macbeth constantly tries to distinguish between illusion and certainty, as when he contemplates the notorious dagger:

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1.36-39).

The audience will soon realize that “although Macbeth’s downfall springs from his inability to withstand the allure of power, the enticing visions the witches present drive him, even as they embody the contrast between what he anticipates and what occurs” (Cahn, 2000). True enough; the entire play is constantly barraged by the tell-tale prophecies from the witches that pushed Macbeth to undertake some unwarranted actions just to satisfy his thirst for power and good fortune.

Ultimately, we will come to terms in uniting the inward emotions with the outward actions when we vicariously take into account the experience that the characters of Macbeth are going through. Although we will be in awe of its depiction of the extremes of human wickedness, Macbeth will essentially remain as a tragic narrative rather than a melodramatic representation of evil. As human beings, we are not free from mistakes and failures that we often do unethical things in order to get what we wanted. However, it is through the realization of mistakes that we learn and gain a reprieve. In this play, guilt was meted by insanity for Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself was emotionally deadened because of all the brutalities he committed. Macbeth’s previous rejection of any attempt to reflect or be guided by self-knowledge is done in order to commit the crimes that his ambition directed. Without Macbeth’s susceptibilities as a person, Shakespeare’s play would be plain boring and he would have not attained world acclaim as the world’s greatest playwright.

Works Cited

Bradley, Andrew Cecil. “Lecture IX: Macbeth” and “Lecture X: Macbeth.” S, Limited, 2004. 331-365. 2008. Web.

Cahn, Victor L. Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2000.

Keller, J. Gregory. “The Moral Thinking of Macbeth.” Philosophy and Literature. 29.1 (2005) 41-56.

Oatley, Keith. “Simulation of substance and shadow: inner emotions and outer behavior in Shakespeare’s psychology of character.” College Literature. 33.1 (2006): 15.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.

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