Curiosity Killed The King:
Macbeth and Aristotle on Ethical Principles
The presence of established truths within a society is central to evaluating the moral structure of a human being. Through the process of seeking a higher understanding of one’s purpose for existence on earth, it is possible to specifically determine which qualities characterize the depth of one’s righteousness. Starting from observation and experience, Aristotle, an ancient greek philosopher, focused his study of ethical intellect on the actual intended goodness present behind an individual’s decisions. By analyzing one’s actions, habitual behaviors can be pinpointed to expose the true nature of a person’s motivation. William Shakespeare, an English Renaissance poet and playwright, worked to expose the flaws of humanity at large and teach the necessity of obtaining and maintaining values in life through his written plays. When comparing the ideals of Shakespeare and Aristotle, two thinkers from entirely different eras, similarities in content and message are highly evident in the playwright’s formulation of characters. Although there is no concrete evidence that William Shakespeare studied and agreed with Aristotle’s distinctive thoughts on what it means to live virtuously versus wickedly, Shakespeare’s characters exhibit conscious knowledge of right and wrong. Building on Aristotle’s proposition that everyone wants the fulfillment of a happy life, the dramatist delves into attempting to resolve the perpetual conflict between self-indulgence and self-control. Through his tragedy, Macbeth, Shakespeare investigates the causation of corruption within a person’s ambitions and how the hunger for power can overshadow the power of morality. With this overarching concept of choice either leading to good or bad fortune, both scholars grapple with the theories of humanism and the idea of inevitable destiny taking the upper-hand over all organisms in the universe. Through the unraveling of events in the tragedy, Macbeth, Shakespeare supports Aristotelian theories of human nature as being defined and motivated to action by innate desires; the morals of an individual are best depicted through their actions and reactions to the pressures of temptation. Through this and his other plays, William Shakespeare opens minds to the idea of destiny and decision being in a continuous battle; as a result of selfish intentions, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, fall hard from their nobility into a pit of guilt illustrated through their demise and spiral into madness. Continuing with the concept of Aristotelian ethical philosophies, the self-inflicted destruction and use of trickery, seen in Macbeth, reinforces the importance of a human’s need to root themselves in goodness and virtue in order to reach optimal potential and success.
Ethics can most easily be defined as moral philosophy. It is “the discipline [that focuses on] what is morally good and bad, right and wrong” (Singer, 2012). It is the theory of honest principles that apply to a person’s actions in the external world; a practical system of philosophical organization and decision making that includes the standards to “which human actions can be judged right or wrong” against (Singer, 2012). The term ‘ethics’ deals with the study of an individual’s morality (Singer, 2012). Ethics takes into consideration the ultimate factors driving human nature; it encapsulates the characteristics of humanity that distinguish the natural sensations a person is born with, such as thinking, feeling, and acting. Aristotle, like Shakespeare, uses his words to attempt to explain to the audience and readers what life consists of and what the elusive meaningful purpose of existence may be. As Macbeth begins, the Aristotle’s principle of wittiness is used by the Weïrd Sisters to fool the main character, Macbeth. These sisters, also known as the Three Witches, weigh heavily on the outcome of Macbeth’s fortune; since weïrd means “fateful” or “fate-determining”, the inclusion of this word in the witches’ name is important (Mowat, 14). Aristotle concentrates on the essence of trickery through the means of intellectually outsmarting the other party.
With the idea of Aristotle’s humanistic power at the forefront of each human being’s destiny, decision making reigns supreme. In MacBeth, William Shakespeare confronts the audience immediately with a choice to see the witches’ prophecy as inevitable fate or a foreshadowing for the destruction of MacBeth’s moral character. The witches hail MacBeth as the Thane of Glamis, his initial noble title, but then, they address him as the Thane of Cawdor. This baffles MacBeth, because he is not the Thane of Cawdor. Although their second address to him is important, the third address to him is much more powerful. The witches tell MacBeth that he is to become king (MacBeth, I.iii.). This event is described by A.D. Nuttall in Shakespeare The Thinker as the trigger (Thinker, 284). Shakespeare relishes in MacBeth’s reaction to the strange witches who claim to know his future status. This trigger or inciting incident of the tragedy begins with MacBeth’s reaction of fear. MacBeth has pondered this fate before, and his fear arises from the fact that the witches have uttered MacBeth’s desire to hold the position of king. He feels as if they have read his mind. By revealing his deepest dream and temptation, the witches become the action that begins the “outside-in causation” of the play (Thinker, 285). The main question of the plot develops at this point. Is MacBeth’s good fortune of achieving royalty a matter of destined events or are MacBeth and Lady MacBeth’s future unethical decisions the cause for his rise to the kingly position? At this point, the hypothesis or prophecy becomes action. The true debate is whether MacBeth would have become king if he never met the witches. The prophecy allows MacBeth to feel entitled to success, which leads his decision making down a immoral path.
The Three Witches behold either a strong grasp on how to plan and execute a lie, or they behold the power of comprehending complexities that other species cannot. The First Witch’s line, “Lesser than Macbeth and greater” shows that either the Witches’ have foresight into the future in a fantastical, or unreal, way or that the witches simply contain knowledge of how temptations lead people into following their predictions (I.iii.68). Shakespeare plays with this idea that the witches may have psychic powers or they may just understand how human nature works. The Three Witches can see the lust for power in Macbeth’s eyes, and therefore, proclaim that Banquo, fellow commander with Macbeth of King Duncan’s army, may have a lesser position of power than Macbeth, but Banquo is still greater than Macbeth in his characteristics. The Second Witch reinstates this by saying that Banquo is “not so happy, yet much happier” in the grand scheme (I.iii.69). Banquo has greater happiness, because he upholds virtue and does not lust for power that he does not deserve or receive nobly.
Macbeth’s negative use of ethics through his words and actions are shown often throughout the course of the play. A simple example of Macbeth’s overconfidence occurs when he commands the Witches to stay, even though he thinks they are “imperfect” speakers (I.iii.73). He demands that they tell him more about this prophecy, for Macbeth wants verification and more proof that he is to become king. By questioning the Three Witches’ prediction, Macbeth reveals the overpowering curiosity he holds that will eventually lead him to kill the king. Macbeth’s need for reassurance that he shall someday hold kingship overwhelms his mind to the extent that he, himself, can also feel the evilness arising as he plans how to achieve royalty by potentially executing the plot to murder King Duncan. He, like other human beings, attempts to feel better about his sinful thoughts by dragging his fellow friend, Banquo, down too. Macbeth reminds him that if this prophecy is true, then Banquo’s sons shall be kings as well. Essentially, Macbeth wants Banquo to agree with the Three Weïrd Sisters. Macbeth is trying to legitimize his possible future actions.
Banquo is concerned with the logical reasoning behind their encounter with the Three Witches. He utters, “Have we eaten on the insane root/ That takes reason prisoner” (I.iii.87-88). In this example, the insane root is the root of evilness that is inherently planted in power. Macbeth’s realization that kingship is within reach takes his clear thinking and reasoning away from his thoughts. Reason, in terms of philosophical thinking, is the rational inductive process that a person endures while trying to discover ultimate truth in a situation. Macbeth displays the same trait of trickery that the Three Witches embodied earlier. He convinces Banquo that it is destiny’s plan to have the prediction come true. In line 91 of Act I, Scene III, Macbeth touches on the fact that part of the Witches’ fortune has already been proven true (I.iii.91). If Macbeth is already appointed as the Thane of Glamis, and he is already in line to become the Thane of Cawdor, then achieving kingly status is simply fate.
A person exhibiting Aristotelian virtue ethics is one who is seeking answers on what it is to be a good person. The term ‘good person’ is the simplest way to condense the complex thoughts on morality that Aristotle supported. He believed and taught that a good person is someone who has virtues (Brown, 1). Virtues are displayed through a person’s attentiveness to moral excellence. These efforts of carrying out a virtuous life compose the conduct of uprightness (Dictionary.com). The values that a person holds most dear impact the certain virtues or ‘good actions’ they display in daily routine (Brown, 1). The virtues, as established by Aristotle, that are most prevalent in Macbeth are: courage, temperance, right ambition, friendly civility, sincerity, proper pride, and just resentment.
Aristotle sought to find the ultimate truth of being and was troubled with the issues that arose in an individual’s conduct and character, when faced with multiple avenues of choice (Durant, 2011). As he became aware of and began studying the questions that coincide with decision making, Aristotle had to rise above that of the physical and tangible world. He looked towards answering the question of purpose (Durant, 2011). He approached the ever-stumping topic of existence and wondered, “What is the best life? What is life’s supreme good? What is virtue? How shall [a person] find happiness and fulfillment?” (Durant, 2011). Aristotle first started this process of trying to understand human beings’ innate flaws by “recognizing that the aim of life is not goodness for its own sake, but happiness” (Durant, 2011). Aristotle saw that a human chooses happiness for the feeling itself. He observed that humans only acted with good intentions in hopes that this would lead them closer to happiness (Durant, 2011). Through this route, Aristotle showcases that humans can fall into the trap of only acting honorably if there is a reward.
The proper exercise of power is a central concept when working with the texts of Shakespeare (Hobson, 7). Regarding the politics present in Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the principle characters to extract the theme of the possibility of power and how that may lead a person towards giving into selfish ends. As present in Aristotle’s text, Politics, Aristotle saw a strong link between the ethics and politics of society. He saw the virtuous life as one that looked to learn and spread the ideas of moral education with the intent on making the community better as a whole (Clayton, 2). When contemplating the characteristics that make a leader powerful, one realizes that not all these traits are ethically correct or centered about what is best for the masses. Macbeth exhibits manipulation as he draws the tools necessary for domination within his reach. With the Witches’ prophecy always lingering throughout the trenches of his mind, Macbeth happily accepts the wishes of King Duncan when asked to host them at his home in Inverness. With the royal king staying inside his own household, Macbeth’s hope to murder King Duncan and take the crown for himself become more viable. However, Macbeth is not the main manipulator present in the play. In hopes of achieving his darkest desires, he sets out before the king and his people to prepare for their visitation. He also sends his wife, Lady Macbeth, a letter briefly explaining his encounter with the Witches.
With this letter to Lady Macbeth, Macbeth plants a seed of wrongful doing into his wife’s head. By promising her that she will someday be Queen, he places the desire for power into her hands as well. This reflects poorly on the moral character of Macbeth, for he does not mind placing this consuming burden of possible achievement onto his wife’s shoulders. Lady Macbeth immediately becomes the leader of the plot to murder King Duncan and drives the play in the direction that only seems fit to end in destruction. After reading the letter, Lady Macbeth launches into a soliloquy that reveals her innermost temptations and expectations for the event to come (I.v.1-33). She begins to question the courage of her husband. She assumes he will succumb to cowardly actions and not take the chances that such fate has provided for him. She knows that Macbeth has the desire, but he does not have enough ruthlessness; therefore, she must manipulate the situation and construct the murder in such a way that he will feel wrong for not following through with the assassination.
Macbeth’s deliberate actions and decisions let his desire leads him to evilness. His decisions are unnatural, because they try to overpower that of true destiny and righteous actions. Macbeth denies his own ethical thoughts and virtuous character by proceeding with this wicked plot of murder even though he is aware of the wrongness of his deeds. There are many indications that Macbeth knows his ambition and lack of self-control are wrong. Even though Macbeth shows knowledge of virtuous character, he lets his wife advocate his want for power. He steps over his own social and moral constraints. Lady Macbeth’s strong desire for power drives her husband to follow through with his previously faltering thoughts on the plot to murder Duncan.
Shakespeare’s plays work to bring clarity to the real origin of humanity’s problem with maintaining integrity. The universality of human tribulations that are presented in Shakespeare’s Macbeth allows the audience to notice the flaws that they have within themselves. People can relate to Macbeth in their own sinful desire to obtain attention and power. The hunger for power is present in all societal aspects of today. Through the rise and demise of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, readers can see that conscious decisions are within a human’s own control. This theme also expands into showing the effects of acting out of selfishness, resulting in guilt, confusion, and greed. The purpose of the art of drama is to convey realistic issues in an understandable way.
All Shakespeare’s villains are related in the importance their role has in each play. The troubles of human nature are depicted through the inevitable sinfulness that comes from humanity’s need to succeed in power and achievements. The strife of overcoming trouble that leads to corrupt actions is common to all. Shakespeare uses fictional circumstances and characters to show the connection all humans have in making the righteous decision is the face of difficulty. Humanity groups all beings into a relatable category, recognizing that existence contains challenge. This shared suffering appeals to all individuals and allows human beings to relate on the most basic level, the emotional level. Since such a strong and bonding connection is held between every single being, through the capability of feeling a vast range of emotions, it should be assumed that every functioning, thinking, feeling, and acting individual understands the fundamental foundation of ethics.
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