The Spirit of Macbeth
By Chizaram Ugochuku
Macbeth not only ignores, but exactly reverses, the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount—and reaps the inevitable consequences.
People have long been searching for the path to fulfillment in life. According to Jesus, a holy life is the best way to achieve true happiness. His Beatitudes guarantee a rewarding life to those who love God and pursue virtue. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, three witches promise the Thane of Glamis kingship over Scotland, but they use their dark influence to convince him that treachery, and not virtue, is the only way he can fulfill their auspicious prophecy. Macbeth rejects the values of the Beatitudes by denying the efficacy of meekness, the importance of righteousness, and the blessing of purity.
The Beatitudes claim that authority will ultimately belong to the patient, humble, and gentle. These people are the most qualified to rule over others because they do not seek power for its own sake. The third Beatitude declares, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” If Macbeth had continued to serve his king, Duncan, faithfully and meekly, he may have legitimately acquired the throne which “fate and metaphysical aid” have promised him. However, instead of attending to the principles of the Beatitudes, Macbeth chooses to consult the dark powers. One of the apparitions whom the witches call up exhorts him to “Be bloody, bold, and resolute”; another tells him to “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care / who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are: / Macbeth shall never be vanquish’d …” Macbeth exults in their instructions and takes care to follow them. However, in that same encounter, he learns that he has handed his soul “to the common enemy of man to make … the seed of Banquo kings!” In testimony to the truth of the third Beatitude, Banquo, a meek and loyal subject of Duncan, eventually inherits the throne of Scotland through his descendants, whereas Macbeth’s name dies with him.
Macbeth also suppresses his desire to live honorably, in order to pursue the crown. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Macbeth is content with his fairly virtuous life until the witches’ temptation challenges his sense of principle; but even then, he hesitates to become king at the cost of his righteousness. In Act I, Lady Macbeth criticizes her husband’s reluctance to assassinate Duncan: “Thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition, but without the illness [that] should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false, and yet wouldst wrongly win.” Through his wife’s reproaches, Macbeth eventually decides that if he really wants the throne of Scotland, he must “hunger and thirst” for it without any consideration for morality. Before he kills Duncan, he declares, “I am settled, and bend up each corporeal agent to this terrible feat.” At this point, he has wholeheartedly devoted himself to the pursuit of power. However, unlike those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Macbeth is never filled with what he desires. Even when he has the crown, he grimly reflects that “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus.” Throughout his rule, Macbeth is personally harassed by worry, insecurity, and hallucinations, as well as politically troubled by those who recognize Duncan’s son Malcolm as the true king of Scotland. Consequently, his kingship gives him very little of the comfort and satisfaction he hoped it would.
Not only do the Beatitudes honor meekness and righteousness, but they also praise innocence. The seventh Beatitude states, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Originally, Macbeth values innocence as well, and so is afraid to stain his own. Even after he has murdered Duncan, he laments, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No.” Lady Macbeth, however, convinces him that purity is a contemptible weakness. “My hands are of your color,” she points out, “but I shame to wear a heart so white.” Goaded on by his wife and by the witches, Macbeth becomes persuaded that it is the hard of heart, not the pure in heart, who are blessed, because their inability to distinguish right from wrong allows them to sin without compunction. In Act III, he invokes the dark and bloody Night to “cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / which keeps me pale.” Rather than regretting that he has lost his purity, Macbeth now only wishes to destroy his conscience, so that he can further stain his heart with blood.
Macbeth rejects the meekness, righteousness, and purity that are glorified in the Beatitudes as he comes to believe that only aggression, greed, and callousness can bring about the sovereignty that will satisfy his ambition. In risking what he possessed by virtue to attain fulfillment through kingship, Macbeth loses even the “blessing” that the witches promise him. He realizes at the end that the sinister spirits whom he has served have cheated him of his kingdom, his happiness, and his life, and that he would have been better off with the certain blessings of virtue promised in Jesus’ Beatitudes than selling his soul to darkness for evil rewards.
Chizaram Ugochuku is a homeschooled high school junior from Easton, PA. She enjoys music, literature, and history, and is considering studying political science and government in college.
Each time we administer the CLT, the forty top students from that test are offered the opportunity to contribute an essay or piece of creative writing to the Journal. Congratulations to Miss Ugochuku on her high score! For more from our top-performing students, check out these essays on the theology behind Beowulf, the psychology of Wuthering Heights, and the text of the national anthem. And be sure not to miss our weekly podcast, Anchored, or our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank.
Page image of Three Witches, Macbeth by James Henry Nixon, 1831.