Dilemmas in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Titus Andronicus

The nature of dilemma dictates asituation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives, often bringing undesirable consequences regardless of which alternative is chosen. Dilemmas are frequent in Shakespeare’s tragedies and often concerned with a conflict between moral duty and emotions governed by revenge or ambition. What makes these dilemmas tragic is the overriding feeling provoked in the audience that events could not possibly turn out any differently.

In the case of Macbeth, his tragic dilemma is superficially raised by the three witches and involves a decision on whether to be proactive in taking the throne from King Duncan. The intervention of the witches leads many to believe that Macbeth is actually left with no decision to make whatsoever as their prophecy has far great an influence on his destiny. Many read their characters as goddesses or fates that seal Macbeth’s future and this is to suggest that Macbeth merely believes he is posed with a dilemma. However, Bradley argues that this type of reading, or reading that heralds this influence on the action as important ‘because they are merely symbolic representations of the unconscious or half-conscious guilt in Macbeth himself,’ are simply inadequate. In opposition, Bradley suggests that there is little in the play to give the impression that these women should be read as symbolic or ultimate powers of fate. Shakespeare was known to have researched the practice of witchcraft and consequently presented images of women that would have been present in the seventeenth century. Therefore, Bradley argues that ‘while the influence of the Witches’ prophecies on Macbeth is very great, it is quite clearly shown to be an influence and nothing more’ and that ‘not only was he free to accept or resist the temptation, but the temptation was already with him.’ The argument that Hamlet was free to resist the temptation of pursuing the throne prematurely is clarified by the character of Banquo. He too was witness to the prophecies of the three witches but is largely indifferent to the content of their message. Although their words mainly pertain to Macbeth, as a good friend of his, Banquo could easily have initiated a plot to better his own position in the favour of the ‘new’ King. Also, the witches do make a reference to his heirs becoming kings, yet he still does not act on this prophecy either. As it is, only Macbeth takes the message to heart and is led by its message, ‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that sound so fair?’ The use of prophecy can clearly not cleanse Macbeth entirely of blame, even if witches’ prophecy is valid, no timescale is given – suggesting that Duncan could just have easily provided Macbeth with the crown through natural death. The outcome of other parts of their prophecies proves that the information given does not always mean what is first understood, for example, Macduff’s caesarean birth and the movement of Birnam Wood. However, this ‘riddle’ element emerges a little too late for Macbeth to take into consideration.

If we regard Macbeth’s tragic dilemma as one of his own creation, then what persuades him to present himself with such a decision as a result of what he hears from the three witches? The fact that Macbeth ‘starts’ and ‘seems to fear’ their words suggest that the thoughts they induce are not new to him; he is a powerful, successful and above all, ambitious man. Having proposed to kill King Duncan, Macbeth’s main concern over the deed is that Duncan is a virtuous, well-liked leader. Also, Macbeth is both his subject and guest, positions that require the demonstration of respect, loyalty and servility towards his king and host. The tragic element of Macbeth’s dilemma is also brought to our attention in this scene (I.vii) where the tragic hero ponders on the nature of retribution for such despicable acts and their tendency to ‘return / To plague th’inventor.’ His declaration that committing murder would be easy if he could guarantee there would be no consequences only serves to provide a sense of foreboding, insinuating that there will inevitably be terrible consequences. Macbeth concludes that his only true motivation is ambition. The corrupting and destructive power of unchecked ambition so becomes one of the main themes of the play. Macbeth is unable to rein his ambition with the influence of his moral values and so commits murder of the highest form. Although it is against his better judgment – as proved by his lengthy internal conflicts – ultimately his desire for power and advancement wins the battle.

However, Macbeth cannot be held entirely responsible for the way he chooses to deal with his tragic dilemma. The character of Lady Macbeth has a powerful influence over her husband’s choice, mercilessly encouraging him to be strong and reminding him to keep up his guard during the aftermath of the crime, ‘But screw your courage to the sticking-place.’ When Macbeth falters, she frequently argues that his unwillingness to use violence is a direct comment on his lack of masculinity. She even goes so far as to suggest that his ability to follow through with the murder is directly aligned with his ability to carry out a sexual act, ‘To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?’ Equally ambitious as her husband, the only thing that holds Lady Macbeth back is her sex. In her famous speech of Act I, Scene v she equates murder with manhood and wishes away her female characteristics and therefore, enable herself to murder Duncan. Clearly, Macbeth ponders his dilemma for much longer than his wife would, and consequently, she is forced to intervene if she wants Macbeth to rise to power, fearing that he is too full of ‘the‘ milk of human kindness’ to carry out the deed alone. She is largely successful in her endeavour to spur Macbeth on to act, indeed, to such an extent that he no longer needs her assistance in conspiring to kill Banquo, and even uses his wives technique of questioning manhood in persuading hired men to commit murder. The argument that women are the root of chaos and evil in the play – the main culprits being the witches and Lady Macbeth – can be seen as unfounded in the light of Macbeth’s actions after Duncan’s murder. Lady Macbeth is largely pushed to the background as she struggles with her conscience, and is no longer of use to her husband.

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