The Theme of Fear in Macbeth

What is fear? Why is it so impactful? Fear can be defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat” (Google). Fear is one of the most powerful emotions; it creates a paranoid, vulnerable state of mind which often leads people to making decisions that they normally would not. Many literary works incorporate fear into their themes to demonstrate how it can corrupt the way a person thinks and compel them to make irrational decisions. William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Macbeth reveals that fear is the most powerful motivating force in existence through Lady Macbeth’s use of fear to manipulate Macbeth, and the dynamic change in each of their characters throughout the course of the play.

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth receives news from three witches, who claim he will be the new Thane of Cawdor and become King of Scotland. Shortly after, Macbeth indeed becomes Thane of Cawdor, which makes him confident that the witches predictions are true. After Duncan decides to make his son Malcolm heir to the throne, Macbeth questions whether or not the witches are right about him becoming the future king of Scotland and considers the fact that he could technically still be the next king if Duncan were executed. It doesn’t take long before Lady Macbeth finds out about the meeting with the witches. She sees an opportunity for Macbeth to take the throne by murdering king Duncan, but fears that he will not be man enough to actually do it. “Yet I do fear thy nature: it is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it” (1.5.16-20). Lady Macbeth knows her husband is afraid of her disapproval. She uses this to her advantage by telling Macbeth she doubts his ability to go through with the plan to murder King Duncan. The last thing Macbeth wants to do is disappoint his wife; he might be afraid of killing the king, but he’s even more afraid of what Lady Macbeth thinks of him. As if questioning Macbeth’s manhood wasn’t enough to convince him to get the deed done, Lady Macbeth goes on to tell Macbeth he should act like the innocent man he his to conceal his true intentions. “Look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” (1.5.56-58). At this point, it is obvious that Lady Macbeth knows murder is not in Macbeth’s nature. Rather than considering her husband’s morals, she continues to encourage him to go through with the plan. Further into Act 1, Macbeth approaches his wife to tell her he’s having second thoughts about killing Duncan and questions what will happen if their plan fails; this doesn’t sit right with Lady Macbeth. “We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.” (1.7.59-61). Once again, Lady Macbeth makes Macbeth question his manliness for not wanting to murder Duncan which makes him doubt the way he’s feeling. Macbeth doesn’t want to betray his cousin who trusts him and cares about him but he feels pressured to prove himself as a man. When Macbeth thinks he’s seeing a dagger which leads him to Duncan’s bedroom, he feels compelled to kill him. Lady Macbeth’s plan seems to have been executed practically perfectly, besides a few details that she takes into her own hands. This sequence of events shows how Lady Macbeth uses Macbeth’s fear of her disapproval to manipulate him into murdering King Duncan, which proves that fear can influence people to make decisions which are not in their true nature.

After murdering King Duncan, Macbeth’s paranoia sets in almost immediately. He tells Lady Macbeth about the dagger he saw before going into the king’s room and the voices he thought he heard. Lady Macbeth warns her husband that if he thinks too much about what he has done, he will go crazy, but Macbeth is already struggling to think and act normally. When Duncan’s death is revealed to the rest of the characters, Macbeth kills the guards that him and Lady Macbeth framed as the killers to make himself appear loyal to the king and to ensure that the guards could not attempt to prove their innocence. Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flea to England and Ireland in fear that they may be killed next, but this makes them look guilty. For now, Macbeth is in the clear and he is named the new King of Scotland. Banquo becomes suspicious of the witches’ prophecies and starts to wonder if Macbeth had anything to do with them coming true. Macbeth, already paranoid, begins to fear that Banquo may know what he has done. “Our fears in Banquo stick deep, and in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared.” (3.1.50-55). Macbeth remembers the witches saying he would become king but that Banquo’s descendants would follow after him. He understands that this means his future children would not inherit the throne, but the children of Banquo would. Macbeth becomes terrified at the thought of having murdered the king just to have someone else’s children take the throne after him; he decides to take matters into his own hands once again, and have Banquo and his son killed. Macbeth convinces two murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance in secret. The murderers kill Banquo, but Fleance escapes. Macbeth is ecstatic to hear that Banquo has been executed, but the thought of Fleance still being alive makes him feel trapped by the fear of losing his crown. Determined to get more information, Macbeth goes back to the witches and demands answers. First Apparition says, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff; Beware the thane of Fife” (4.1.77). After hearing this, Macbeth becomes even more fearful of Macduff; he is convinced that he needs to kill him immediately to get rid of his troubles and fears. Macbeth soon discovers that Macduff ran away to England and decides to kill his family instead. At this point, Macbeth is desperately trying to secure his title as king. His actions clearly show that his morals have completely changed. In the beginning, Macbeth was hesitant about murdering Duncan; he did not want to betray his leader. Once the evil deed was done, the evil within Macbeth only grew. He has become a tyrant leader who no longer feels ashamed of his actions. Macbeth’s fear of losing power controls his thoughts and actions; he is now willing to murder anyone who stands in the way of his power. This drastic change in Macbeth’s character shows how fear can corrupt a person’s mind and motivate them to do the unthinkable.

In England, Malcolm and Macduff discuss the disastrous state of Scotland. After Ross informs Macduff that his wife and children have been killed under the orders of Macbeth, he is even more prepared to get his revenge. Malcolm agrees to help Macduff save his country and tells him he has already arranged for England to help them. The leader of the English army and 10,000 of their soldiers follow Malcolm and Macduff to Scotland in hopes of defeating the evil Macbeth. Back at Macbeth’s castle in Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth has been seen acting suspiciously by a gentlewoman who works for her. Unsure of what to do, the gentlewoman reports Lady Macbeth’s strange behavior to a doctor, “Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon’t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.” (5.1.5-9). Lady Macbeth is beginning to feel guilty for the murder of Duncan and the murders that followed; after all, she did push Macbeth to kill Duncan knowing it was not in his nature. As Lady Macbeth realizes that she is responsible for most of her husband’s wrong-doings, she becomes overwhelmed with paranoia and guilt. The woman who once thought her and Macbeth were untouchable, has been driven to insanity. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” (5.1.32-35). Lady Macbeth has gone mad to the point that her mind is creating visuals which do not exist. She imagines the blood of King Duncan on her hands and is incapable of washing it off. The fear of living with the guilt that she’s been carrying around for the rest of her days begins to consume her thoughts and control her life. Right before Macbeth goes to battle he is informed that his wife, the Queen, is dead. Shakespeare does not specify the cause of Lady Macbeth’s death, but it appears as if she has taken her own life. At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth is the more evil of the two Macbeths. She pressures Macbeth into murdering the king and encourages his sinful behavior. Eventually, she realizes the severity of her actions and loses her sanity. The way Lady Macbeth’s character shifts from being manipulative and ill-intentioned to fearful of her own thoughts proves how powerful fear can be.

William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Macbeth demonstrates the theme that fear is a powerful motivator which can lead people to making unimaginable decisions. Lady Macbeth utilizes fear to make her husband go against his morals and murder King Duncan. As the play progresses, Macbeth faces some obstacles which make him fearful of losing power. Macbeth’s character undergoes drastic change; he goes from being a noble, well-respected man, to being the most evil tyrant leader Scotland has ever seen. As Macbeth becomes a different man, his wife soon realizes that she is the one to blame for the poor choices he has made since taking the throne. The fear that Lady Macbeth faces after coming to realization that she would have to live with her guilt forever affects her everyday behavior and permanently scars her. Shakespeare’s play reveals that fear leads to corruption, irrational thinking and even insanity.

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