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Macbeth Is Ultimately A Coward. Do You Agree?

Exam style response to GCSE Question

Date : 07/03/2023

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Uploaded by : Kanwar
Uploaded on : 07/03/2023
Subject : English

Macbeth is a play that deals with deceptive appearances: for all his showy bravery, Macbeth is ultimately a coward. Do you agree?


If we start by considering an act of contrition, a rare redemption on the very edge of death, at the end of life, we may in fact recognise something quite simple but horrifying nonetheless. That is, we judge a person for the entirety of their existence in the very way they embrace their end. It seems to produce meaning, an equalisation of all other acts committed in life - by taking a life, acting treacherously, not to mention any positive contributions to society.

In this way it is the final word, the final act which pays the balance, re-weighs the scales of justice. The treachery of the Thane of Cawdor may seem cowardly, but is it so? Is cowardice the act committed or is there redemption if he admits his guilt and willingly pays his debt? If he does neither of these things, is that then cowardice?

It would seem to be cowardly, spineless, lacking in moral conviction. But what if one follows one`s convictions through to the end - to death, would that also be cowardly or a confirmation of an internally relevant moral process, well-reasoned in its own way. We are confronted with these issues head on with Macbeth.

Malcolm reports that he has spoken

`With one that saw him die who did report

That very frankly he confess`d his treasons,

Implor`d your Highness` pardon, and set forth

A deep repentance. Nothing in his life

Became him like leaving it.` (Act I. Scene IV)

It would seem that the internal value system of the play regards his final sentiments as having placed his reputation in a new light. By all regards not the same light, but one that brings honor, dignity and character into high regard.

This perspective is from society - Malcolm is a representative of justice, a member of the injured party which comprises the community led by the King of Scotland. If we compare this (treachery as a parallel to murder) with Macbeth`s slaying of Macdonwald, entirely different perspectives are unleashed.

For one, we do not ask why Macbeth is allowed to avoid being held to account. It would seem ridiculous to even raise the objection. In fact, a war killing is not a murder in that the killer and killed are not in a personal relationship each sees the other as representative of an enemy force.

The executioner sees not a victim but a representative of a certain crime. The executed sees the executioner as justice incarnate. Murder is thus judged as an intent to kill where the relationship is proximal, or personal.

Offences against God and society are in most cases deemed murder. However, it is also an offence against the personhood, against oneself. Because Macbeth has taken the life of Duncan and later Banquo (as defined previously as murder) his offence is taken up by society in place of the deceased. The relation is then one of murderer vs. the state.

There seem to be three possibilities for Macbeth, not all will avoid the accusation of cowardice. If he is executed, the act of punishment is atonement for sin. The object of capital punishment is justice, an eye for an eye. The murderer must desire to confess and must die willingly and society must forgive him. If he commits suicide, he is refusing to repent and so society cannot forgive. If he falls into madness, he is incapable of repenting. The last of these is perhaps most relevant on a reading of the play but we find this insufficient grounds on a fully immersive reading of his character development.

It would seem that despite Macbeth`s hallucinations, visions, grave and agonising self-doubt, he seems to actively refuse the desire to confess. He is obstinate, perhaps taking the cowards way out at the very end, at the point at which we tend to judge. He dies willingly but he does not desire to confess and hence society has not forgiven him, in fact, Malcolm barely reflects on him in the short interval between death and closing scenes. He is in fact washed out, removed from history.

However, we must consider a few things. For one, Macbeth is isolated from everyone around him, this ruptures the already fraught relationship with Lady Macbeth. He is truly alone because he bears the full weight of the murders. He cannot sleep,

Methought I heard a voice cry `Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murther sleep` - the innocent sleep

Sleep that knits up the ravell`d sleave of care,

The death of each day`s life, sore labour`s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature`s second course,

Chief nourisher in life`s feast (Act II, Scene ii)

Neither can he forget, because there is no one else to remember the deed in his stead. He cannot drop the weight, he cannot escape into a new imaginary relation between himself and the deceased and he cannot let it remain in the past. All of this because he is alienated. But he is not cowardly at this point because he has consciously made a reasoned choice to kill. He does not feel guilty but feels the weight of this choice.

In fact, he would rather be dead..

`Better be with the dead,

Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,

Than on the torture of the mind to lie

In restless ecstasy.` (Act III, Scene ii)

All he wants is for the ghost of Banquo to announce the factuality of the act itself!

`Thou canst not say I did it. Never shale

Thy gory locks at me.` (Act III, Scene iv)

In the final battle scene, he refuses to commit suicide (unlike his wife, who is perhaps in the truest sense a coward). He is very clearly aware of what his end means to himself and to society. In saying `Why should I play the Roman fool and die/ On mine own sword?` (Act V. Scene viii) he is announcing his quest for justice, relations with other human beings. Thus if he is killed in battle, relation is restored and cowardice is avoided.

Another aspect of cowardice worth exploring has already been touched upon. Are there cowardly acts and if so, what are they?

In high tragedy, a good person suffers through a fatal flaw in their character, their goodness of being. In Macbeth, the goodness that we see are all of what has so far been quoted - the reflections, haunting whispers, ghostly apparitions all reminding us of our collective, human fallibility. Macbeth tries to be a murderer without malice. By malice we mean a wanton devilishness, roaming and killing and acting without a reason. They (Macbeth and the Lady) are always providing reasons. In Act 2, Scene II Macbeth struggles to say `Amen` in response to the grooms of Duncan. Macbeth is destroyed by this, he is stuck between committing a truly cowardly act (in which case he would find no reason to repent) and a righteous, benevolent one. This is a cause of his suffering.

The nature of Christian free-will lies on the difference between what will happen and what ought to happen (morality, love, grace). Macbeth is tempted by this `gift` to explore his future through action, the act of doing. He keeps committing acts of treachery because his past is no longer a choice, his present is a choice and his future is a possibility depending on choices made in the present. He cannot know the future as he can know the past. He knows evil through experience but he carries on because there is a possibility of a new experience.

This somewhat complicates the argument for cowardice, because his hope is renewed with each new beginning, each new tomorrow, until he realises his tomorrow is merely an actor strutting upon the stage. He can only then be judged for cowardice at the very end, where, in restoring his relations to his kin, he avoides cowardice and is merely horribly treacherous.

This resource was uploaded by: Kanwar

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