Representation of Conflict between Fear and Ambition in Macbeth

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Additionally, he illustrates how the initial illusory character of fear (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, l.51–52: “why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?“) becomes consciously experienced reality (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, l.139-140: “Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings.“) which, through the overvalued conception of ‘murder’ merges into fear (Angst) – an emotional state that, in contrast to dread (Furcht), complies with an undefined threat to life (Unterstenhöfer, p.165, l.22ff.).

Already during his first thought of murdering Duncan, after being prophesied the title of king (see Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, l.50), Macbeth unexpectedly startles since he feels something terrifying in the awakening of his reflexive consciousness which immediately makes him shudder1. Banquo notices this right away and therefore asks him the question above (see Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, l.51-52). This fear gives a hint of a suddenly emerging guilt with Macbeth, namely that already before his encounter with the witches there was something in his consciousness; possibly even those very thoughts that are being suggested to him by the prophecies and whose fulfillment seem to be (after the granting of the title ‘Thane of Cawdor’ at the latest) tangibly near. Though he immediately “struggles to understand his own involuntary reactions” to it, he does not succeed2 (Palmer, p.150, l.4-6).

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From this moment, a conflict between fear and ambition arises in Macbeth’s mind, whereby fear prevails at first – up until his final decision to perform the deed (see Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, l.80-83). At this point, or rather as of the murder, his ambition seems to finally have stifled his fear, but in fact the latter continues to dominate its victim Macbeth. Even afterwards he – and, with him, the entire further course of the plot – is being ruled by his fear. For the first time after his regicide, this becomes clear by his murder of Duncan’s servants whom he instantly executes, out of fear that they could expose him, after they have come back to their senses from their rush (see Campbell, p.219, l.3-8; p.222, l.6-9; p.223, l.1-8; l.12-17).

Furthermore, his unknown fear triggers visual hallucinations, metaphysical realities that are linguistically reflected in the statement “And nothing is, but what is not.“ (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, l.144) and, according to Andrew C. Bradley, are to be traced back to “the obscurer regions of man’s being, […] secret forces lurking below, and independent of his consciousness and will.” (Bradley, p.282, l.23-26). On the night of the murder, these hallucinated visual experiences are complemented by acoustic ones, which already announce themselves anticipatively in the dagger-monologue during the apostrophe of the earth: “Thou sure and firm-set earth, / Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear / Thy very stones prate of my whereabout […]” (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 1, l. 56–58 / Unterstenhöfer, p.166, l.10-13). This menacing fear that creeps up on him on the night of the murder continuously increases, until it almost seems to crush him (Unterstenhöfer, p.186, l.7-10).

While most Macbeth-interpreters (such as, for instance, Harold Bloom or Levin L. Schücking) claim in this context that Macbeth shuns his first misdeed merely out of fear of the consequences, especially Bradley is convinced that he recoils from the deed solely due to its vileness, or rather because of his dread of his own inhumanity (see Bradley, p.297, ll.1-16.). The only truly plausible conception, however, lies in the combination of these views; namely, that Macbeth neither hesitates exclusively because of the consequences, nor due to the mere abomination of the murder, but because of both. This explicitly arises out of his monologue in act one, scene seven, in which he first considers the – for him – negative impacts followed by the baseness of the planned assassination itself. Initially, both seem to firmly speak against the performance of the deed.

Before the murder of Duncan, the torture of his earthly hell lies in his premonition of the negative consequences in this life – since he knows: whoever commits such a deed teaches others to act the same way; thus, a murder plot could soon be directed against him too – as well as in the afterlife – being eternal damnation since he destroyed the divinely ordained order – of which Macbeth is fully aware and which he is firmly alert to. Besides, “when he talks of the moral implications of the deed before murdering, he is not ‘really’ there: he is ‘rationalising’ his fear.” (Moorthy, p.194, l.42-43).

After this murder, on the other hand, his inner agony lies in the dread of his own inhumanity, which, though he reasonably declares it to himself as fear of revenge and betrayal, is essentially the same nightmarish memory of the sinfully shed blood that also haunts Lady Macbeth afterwards. The extent of this torture, which Shakespeare’s powerful language makes comprehensible for the audience, pushes him further ahead (see Rojahn-Deyk, p.219, ll.19-27). The fact that he fears this step of regicide is hardly surprising, since it constitutes the greatest risk of his life.


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