Man is in control of world, and consequently of his existence. Since the effervescence of human greatness created by the Renaissance, the superiority of man has been continually accentuated through our culture. However, there still remains the domain of abstract concepts, which cannot be mastered, or even grasped entirely by the most profound member of human civilization. In the realm of these abstract concepts, William Shakespeare had already incorporated the use of different settings and characters to create an almost supernatural environment for his praised plays.
The Tragedy of Macbeth proves to be no exception. In effect, in this play tracing the political rise and disastrous fall of a Scottish thane during the feudal times, the characters are dominated by several intangible concepts, whether they are simply nature, ambition, or the more complex effects caused by illusion. In more precise terms, Shakespeare makes a comment on this subject, as his portrayal of Macbeth’s gradual deterioration clearly leads to the reader’s understanding of the dangers of illusion.
In fact, even before the appearance of the main character, the prevalence of this theme can already be noticed in the first scene, through the obscure and deranging apparition of the three witches. In effect, the three “Weird Sisters” are the generators of Macbeth’s illusions, and it can already be seen that the source of these predictions cannot be entrusted. More specifically, we first see the witches preparing “to meet Macbeth” in the midst of a stormy weather.
This ambiance, further emphasized by such expressions as “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”, already creates a supernatural mood and foreshadows both the dangerous aspect of illusions, as well as their lack of veracity. In effect, both the uncontrollable aspect of life and the persistent mention of “equivocation” are hinted through the mystical aspect of the witches, and their intermingling of “foul and fair”, true and false, reality and predictions. When faced to such creatures, a human, however powerful and exceptional, cannot lead or even direct the trajectory of his life or his environment.
As the reader notices, Macbeth will fall in the same depths of catastrophe led by illusion. In contrast to this macabre sight is the political and physical chaos expressed by war in the second scene of Act One. In effect, Macbeth is portrayed as “cannons overcharged with double cracks”. Thus, at this point, Macbeth still maintains control of reality, as he dominates the battle bravely and honorably. In composing this scene, Shakespeare further accentuates the future detriments of the thane due to illusions.
In effect, the lord remains successful both publicly and privately as long as he does not confuse ideal with the present. This is immediately confirmed by the following scene, when the meeting with the witches forces Macbeth to consider the possibility of regicide, as he declares, “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man that function/Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is/But what is not”. Again, the confrontation with ambitious projections of the future immediately creates an intricate conflict within Macbeth.
Here, the thane has accepted the words of the witches solely based on his appointment to the title of Cawdor, and his deepest thoughts contradict his principles. In effect, the warrior intends to kill the king for whom he has just risked his life in battle. Although the disturbance created in the protagonist’s mind does not seem apparent to others at first, the strong inner conflict which already leads Macbeth can be perceived by the reader. In this state of confusion and uncertainty, the appearance of Lady Macbeth in Act One, Scene Five provides an interesting level of comparison.
In effect, whereas illusions have broken the thane’s inner calm, and taken away his force, they have produced a motivated and determined character in his wife. Still, the witches’ predictions are not positive for Lady Macbeth either, since she displays her negative aims, and reproaches her husband’s “milk of human kindness”. This is confirmed in the final scene of this first act, as the woman violently comments on Macbeth’s doubts and commands him to “screw your courage to the sticking-place”.
Once again, although they are different, the effects caused by the unattainable dreams have repercussions in the concrete and tangible world. As Act Two opens, another contrast allows Shakespeare to further explore the detrimental effect of Macbeth’s illusions. Specifically, the discussion between the two victorious generals again emphasizes the already declining state of Macbeth’s honor and mental condition. In effect, in contrast to the conspirator, Banquo can cope with the dreams of future success.
In effect, although his sleep is disturbed by “cursed thoughts”, he still proclaims that he will keep his “allegiance clear”. Again, the far-extending effects of Macbeth’s plans are already shown, since the secret and forced ascendance to King Duncan’s throne force the protagonist to give up all the principles which lead the men of honor. At this point, Banquo’s sense of reality and Macbeth’s state of mind clearly start de deviate, as shown by the appearance of a “dagger” during the protagonist’s soliloquy.
When confronted with the sight of the knife, Macbeth declares, “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still”. Just as he cannot grasp the product of his disturbed imagination in this powerful scene, the thane will not be able to successfully handle what the illusions will offer him in the future. In these words, the principle of equivocation emerges again, as all the apparitions that the Scotsman encounters will either turn out to represent something out of reality, or not completely true. As Macbeth himself declares in his tirade, “Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses”.
In effect, the vision of Macbeth upon reality has been dramatically transformed by his vision of the ideal, and the lord can no longer distinguish the line that separates the truth with the domain of envies, plans and imagination. In other words, Macbeth has been corrupted by illusion even before initiating the murder that will lead to his self-destruction. This is further shown by his attitude after killing Duncan, as he confides to his Lady, “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself”, and affirms his inability to pronounce amen afterwards.
The confrontation of illusion and reality has proved disastrous, as Macbeth only realizes the effects caused by his action once the crime is committed. In effect, the vision which he held before the regicide did not anticipate the recurring feelings of guilt and doubt that he would experience afterwards. Also, taking a step back from the focus of the character, the reader also notes the continuing allusions to Macbeth’s failure through the distorted state of his environment.
Even the drunk porter who brings the comic relief of the play in Act Two, Scene Three comes to clearly express the concept of “equivocator”, though on a certainly less philosophical note. Nevertheless, this vulgar apparition clearly discerns the problem of Dunsinane Castle’s master: the illusions which have led him up to this point are similar to the porter’s alcohol, as they invade the man’s peace and inevitably transform his perception of life, which moves back and forth between distorted reality and total imagination.
On a wider scale is presented the chaotic state of the play’s environment, portrayed by thane Lennox’s account on the “strange screams of death” provoked by the violent wind. In a state of political confusion-thane Macduff has just discovered Duncan’s assassination-and mental chaos for Macbeth, the unnatural behavior taken by nature strongly accentuates the long lasting effects of non realistic behavior. Furthermore, as discussed later by the cavalier Russ, it seems that Duncan’s horses “eat each other”. Not only has illusion created confusion in Macbeth’s mind, it is also represented by the chaotic state of nature.
Although the murderer eventually receives the crown of Scotland, it is clear that this violation of nature’s laws, mirrored by the excited condition of the setting, will not permit Macbeth to maintain a reality that he has constructed with a foundation of illusion. At this point, it can be noted that the progression of the play, and more appropriately the regression of the new king’s condition, is accelerated at the opening of Act Three, as Shakespeare’s portrayal of the new royal family further explores the dangers engendered by a moment of illusion.
In effect, the reader sees Macbeth hire two “murderers” to assassinate Banquo and his son, for the king fears the witches’ prediction concerning Banquo’s lineage. This act clearly represent the inextricable struggle which Macbeth goes through, as he tries to change and overcome the predictions which have made him king. In effect, the illusion which led to Duncan’s killing has completely invaded the person of Macbeth, as he no longer makes a distinction between the kingdom he controls, and the sphere of fate and predictions in which he has no power.
Of course, the escape of Banquo’s son, Fleance, once again shows the powerlessness that Macbeth cannot perceive due to the blinding effects of his idealistic vision. Even more important and disturbing, however, is the complete fusion of reality and imagination in the tyrant’s eyes. Specifically, Macbeth no longer controls his own self, as he cannot confront the “Ghost” of Banquo. In effect, the “horrible shadow” of the assassinated thane continues to torment the king during a grand reception. This failure to maintain a sane attitude in reality results from Macbeth’s forceful incorporation of illusion into his everyday life.
The dismissal of the guests by Lady Macbeth brings the play to a critical point, as the king has no control over himself, nor over the kingdom. Thus, the impostor comes to a point where he has sacrificed his own self to an unsuccessful ascension to power led by his perceptions. Even time or absolute control of the country cannot erase the dangerous effects of illusion in the real and lived existence of the king. Moreover, Shakespeare accentuates the concept of lack of control through Macbeth’s following decisions.
In effect, the king decides to visit the witches once again, giving for reason, “More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know/By the worst means the worst”. Again, the uncertain man no longer lives by any code that models his society, but rather follows the obscure predictions of the witches who initiated all his present trouble. In short, Macbeth can no longer live without a constant return to a world of equivocation and illusion. Following this clear change in Macbeth’s development is a different point of view toward illusions. In effect, the first scene of Act Four presents the incompleteness of illusions, which create their danger.
More specifically, the king’s meeting with the witches provides him with three more predictions, first advising him to “beware Macduff! /Beware the Thane of Fife”, then informing that no man “of woman born /Shall harm Macbeth”, and finally reassuring Macbeth that he “shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him”. Evidently, the progression of the play proves these projections to be either implicit or not totally true. In effect, Act Five, Scene Six proves that “the wood began to move” as the invading British army covered itself with branches from Birnam Wood.
Although it is arguable that the parole of the witches then holds true, the dangers of these predictions is inevitable. In effect, similarly to the dark and mysterious appearance of their authors, all the projections are partial messages that a man should decode, rather than interpret literally. Again, the concept of equivocation in the illusions reappears, as nothing seems to be true, without being completely false. It is the other prediction, however, which directly comes to prove the negative consequences of a life led by illusion.
More precisely, the third appearance during Macbeth’s meeting with the “Weird Sisters” announces that no mortal whatsoever can confront him. However, the spectator comes to know the difficult circumstances of Macduff’s birth, who was “from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripp’d”. Again, Macbeth falls prey to an incomplete message, which he literally translates as his invincibility. Thus, rather than the illusions themselves, it is the attitude taken by Macbeth toward the words of the witches, as well as the effect that illusion has already had on him, that leads to Macbeth’s total destruction.
Nevertheless, Shakespeare does not end the king’s adventure that simply, as the following scenes permit him to craft the slow, gradual, but radical change in the protagonist’s personality. For instance, Scene Two of the fourth act describes the murder of Macduff’s family being put to execution. Again, a strong contrast can be noted, as Macbeth has attained power, but no longer possesses the ethical and loyal traits which characterized his past persona. Thus, although the impostor has done more than wanted politically, as he turned from a king to a paranoid tyrant, the effects of action induced by illusion still torment his mental health.
The evidence of the nuisance created by this false reality, and the inappropriateness of Macbeth’s current political position are further rendered by the scene involving the real king of England. In effect, there, a doctor affirms that “such sanctity hath heaven given [the king’s] hand” that his touch will heal maladies. The importance of this scene concerning the theme of illusion is explained by the contrast that it creates with the unnatural, forced position of Macbeth.
Whereas a good and destined king provides divine touch to his subjects, as was the case with the murdered Duncan, a king whose ascension was not based on reality creates chaos and destroys the positive aspect of his land. Thus, from the beginning, illusion cannot provide security in a world dominated by natural laws. As the fall of Macbeth is no longer deniable, Shakespeare makes one final comment on the extent to which illusion has affected Macbeth and his entourage, as a total reversal of roles is expressed.
In effect, in Scene One of the final act, Lady Macbeth, who acted with confidence and determination at first, now shows signs of nervous hysteria. Her progression from her involvement in the murder, her lack of satisfaction after the murder (3. 2), and finally her present stage of mental deterioration traces the route opposite to Macbeth’s fall. In effect, whereas the king has developed from a concerned and confused state of mind to a ruthless condition, Lady Macbeth now declares, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
The reader inevitably compares this statement to Macbeth’s earlier confusion, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? ” The effects of illusion that have affected these two different mentalities are undeniable. In effect, illusion has dragged a determined and manipulative mind to a state of total dependence and half folly. On the contrary, it has produced in her husband a tyrant of the lowest mental health, which the ethical and noble Macbeth in the beginning of the play would not have recognized.
This unbearable of state of constant fear and half madness is eventually ended by Macduff’s slaying of the “bloodier villain/Than terms can give [him] out. ” This break of the final moment of suspense also marks the end of the illusion that had led the king, and had subsequently transcended into the whole country. Although this return to normalcy clearly expresses the short-lasting existence of illusion, as it is eventually overrun by reality and natural stability, the case of Macbeth’s constant perceptions proves the detrimental repercussions that illusion originates.
In effect, just as they vanish and reappear, these visions constantly take the attributes of the “equivocator” which leads the play, and thus are false without being completely untrue. It is the confrontation between this abstract complexity and the basic demands of society that creates the danger of illusion. However bizarre, obscure and true the multiple foils of illusion appear to be, this same undefined force creates clear, perceptible, and annihilating effects on the human civilization supposedly in control of its intricate existence.