How does Shakespeare present the conflict of good and evil in his play, Macbeth? How do these extremes reflect the time in which the play was written?

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How does Shakespeare present the conflict of good and evil in his play, Macbeth? How do these extremes reflect the time in which the play was written? (20 marks)

The play Macbeth presents the antithesis of good and evil as a concept that is absolute. The play follows the common religious beliefs of the time in presenting three main causes of evil: the total depravity of man, temptation from others and satanic influence. Good is also presented but is not the focus of the play. This is a play about evil, treason and uncertainty – a reflection of the turbulent times of Jacobean England under James I where the conflict between good and evil actions was very real. In examining the three ways in which Shakespeare presents the conflict, a good place to start would be total depravity.

Primarily we see this battle of conscience versus will of the flesh personified in the character of Macbeth. In Act 1 Scene 4, after Duncan names Malcom as his successor, Macbeth laments that Malcom is an obstacle: “On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, / For in my way it lies.” We can see at this stage Macbeth is still undecided at what his course of action will be. His conscience tells him to give up, to “fall down”, but if he is to fulfil his desire of becoming king he must “o’erleap” such hindrances. He goes on to say, “Stars hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Evil committed in darkness is a recurring theme across the play. Macbeth wishes to hide his evil deeds in the night, out of the sight of men and arguably out of the sight of God, as light typifies all that is good and at the time God was considered to be the ultimate good. This meaning would not have been lost on a Jacobean audience. The next couplet further emphasises the discord man can experience within himself: “The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, / Which the eye fears when it is done to see.” This conveys that man can be blind to his own actions, and not even be aware he is committing evil until his eye fearfully surveys the damage caused. The dual use of rhyming couplets at the end of the speech emphasises how twisted and evil Macbeth is becoming.

This idea of man choosing darkness was a common idea of the times. The Puritans believed strongly in the doctrine of Total Depravity, the idea that when given the choice between good and evil man will eventually chose sin by default and is not capable of doing good without divine intervention. In John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ he explains evil as “a hereditary, depravity and corruption of our nature”. However, Banquo is an example of how the Jacobeans believed a religious man can overcome temptation. He is subjected to the same temptation as Macbeth but in Act 2 Scene 1 he is seen praying, “Merciful powers / Restrain me in the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to repose.” He asks for his depraved nature to be restrained so he will be able to choose to do good. It is possible that he himself is considering killing the king. The “cursed thoughts” that he speaks of have begun to transpose as nightmares, which represent how darkness is seeping into even the Scottish people’s repose. Sleep would normally be associated with peace and rest, but slowly it becomes a metaphor for death and decay.

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Following on from that the second way Shakespeare presents good and evil is temptation from others. We see this presented clearly with the scenario in Act 1 Scene 5 between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  When Lady Macbeth finishes reading Macbeth’s letter she states that she fears, “thy nature, / It is too full of the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” She fears that Macbeth’s nature is too kind to take the most direct method to kingship: murdering Duncan. Here we can see how well she knows Macbeth and what drives him. She describes human kindness ...

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