With elements like wars, assassinations, and murders, violence takes up a significant part of Macbeth. At the early stage of Macbeth, the audience is presented a battlefield scene where a bloody massager appears. Echoing such a violent and bloody image, the play ends with Macbeth being killed. Although karma is an Indian belief, lines like “This even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice / to our own lips” (Macbeth I.vii.10) reveal traits of “karma” in the Scottish play. Karma means that all actions have consequences which will affect the doers of the actions at some future time (Reichenbach 399). In this essay, I will argue that violence is not merely actions performed by the characters but the skeleton of plot and theme. For the sake of a clear analysis, I will first outline the concept of karma and karma of violence in Macbeth. Then I will conclude that the karmic effect of violence drives the development of plot and reflects moral judgement.
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As suggested by Rajendra Prasad, the law of karma should be viewed as a retributive theory of morality (qtd. in Keown 331). Reichenbach also noted that 1.Morally accountable actions which are done out of desire for their fruits are subjected to karma; 2.Some karmic effects are manifested at once or in this life, some in the next life; 3.Karmic effect of actions can be accumulated (qtd. in Keown 335). In this essay, Keown’s idea on karma is taken; the relationship between karma and intention is “indisputable”; volitional action alone can result in karma; “sinning in one’s heart” without physical performance is possible that same act may have different karma for different people (Keown 336). Rebirth and karma beyond characters’ portrayed lives will not be discussed here.
Violence is not only a part of the play, but its skeleton. Karma, as stated, is accumulative and is resulted from moral and physical actions. In Macbeth, violence, with its karmic effect, breeds violence. In Act one, Macbeth is reported about cutting Macdonwald open, “unseame[s] him from the nave to th’ chops, / [a]nd fixe[s] his head upon battlements” (I.ii.22-3)and is “[n]othing afeard of what [himself] didst make, / [s]trange images of death” (I.iii.97-8). This suggests his violent nature and his capacity of bloody deeds in the future. Such a “valiant” and “worthy” achievement (I.ii.24), as a result, won him the title of Thane of Cawdor. It was then the realization of prophecy bred his ambition “whose murder yet is but fantastical” (I.iii.139). The word “fantastical” echoes with Banquo’s address to the witches “I’ the name of truth, / Are ye fantastical or that indeed / which outwardly ye show?”(I.iii.54-5), drawing parallel between the witches and Macbeth’s “fantastical” thoughts which are not indeed “outwardly [he] show[ed]” as well. With such murderous thoughts, Macbeth, “whose [place] [is] the nearest” (I.iv.36) to Duncan betrays his own family blood and country to secure the throne. The karmic effect of this bloody throne is fear; the fear on Banquo’s issue and Macduff’s flee to England prompts him further violence and ultimate self-destruction. His bloody acts make “returning were as tedious as go o’ver” (III.iv.140-1).Violence, therefore, breeds on-and-on violent deeds till the end of the play.
As Macbeth puts it, “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.ii.55), such on-and-on violence increases intensity over time. After violence against Macdonwald, Macbeth killed Duncan in sleep. Sleep, under Shakespeare’s description, is “innocent . . . that knits up the reveled sleeve of care . . . the great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast” (II.ii.34-8). The peaceful description of nature’s gift and Duncan’s royal position contrast with the murder, highlighting intensified violence. Although he is unsettled by the deed, he soon recovers and exhibits a greater degree of violence. Without consulting his wife, Macbeth readily kills two innocent servants. Compared to the hesitation shown in Duncan’s murder, he becomes bolder. Violence, as a recurring role, performs an endless loop. Macbeth, with a mind “full of scorpions” (III.ii.36), then sends out three men in total only to ensure Banquo and Fleance’s deaths. He becomes determined to take a step further to kill the weaker gender and innocent children in Macduff’s family. When Macduff receives the tragic news, he asks about his children repeatedly “and all my children?”, “My children too?”, “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / at one fell swoop?” (IV.iii.211-8). Such responses reflect that people then perceived the act of killing innocent children as outrageously violent.The climax of on-and-on violence came when Macduff greets the King with Macbeth’s head, saying “Behold, where stands / the usurper’s cursed head.” (V.viii.54-5), putting an end on the loop of violence in the play.
This illustration of the intensifying ‘loop of violence’ suggests karmic consequences of murderous thoughts. In the analysis of Shakespearean violence, Foakes suggests that “the urge to violence is deeply embedded in the human psyche, and creates recurring whatever political formations are dominant” (Foakes 16). This viewpoint echoes with this karmic “loop of violence”. The series of violent acts keeps driving the plot development. The karma begins with Macbeth’s “sinning in [his] heart” (Keown 336) with murderous thoughts. Had he stopped at any point of his violent murders, he would not have suffered the deadly karma. Karmic effects of Macbeth’s repetitive violence, as suggested, accumulated throughout the play, causing the downfall of the soul and self-destruction. The karma of violence, therefore, extends the plot with series of consequences in Macbeth.
In Macbeth, karma of violence is not only the consequences of behaviour. It implicitly reflects good morality in violence. Contrasting conventional idea, violence does not necessarily imply bad karma. Traditional Christian belief generally subscribes to the idea of “Thou shalt not kill.” However, under karma, same act may have different consequences for different people.
At the beginning of the play, Duncan ordered the execution of Thane of Cawdor. This act of violence, justified by the traitor’s betrayal, did not result in a bad karma. Duncan, despite his death, enjoys the peace of mind of which Macbeth is deprived. Although Banquo’s violent behaviours are not explicitly described, audience can understand that Banquo, as a warrior, is capable of violence. His acts of violence, however, are justified by his selfless patriotism. In the play, Shakespeare uses Banquo as a moral contrast against Macbeth. They are of similar background, official rank and power at the beginning of Macbeth; they both face the tempting prophecy. However, Banquo endeavours to “keep [his] bosom franchised and allegiance clear” (II.i.26-7) while Macbeth “jump[s] the life to come” to commit murders (I.vii.7). The fact that Banquo succeeds in upholding morality in the same temptation suggests that Macbeth’s tragic ending is not a result of fatalism, but karma out of volitional actions. Karma is hugely based on ethical consideration and moral accountability. With moral actions, Banquo’s family line is blessed with good karma, contrasting Macbeth’s violence-induced fatal karma. Macduff, who performed the visually bloodiest violence by cutting and displaying Macbeth’s head, is also exempted from bad karma. Since Macbeth has no children of his own, it is unlikely that Macduff’s bloody deed would provoke another loop of violence against himself. It is reasonable to suggest that, Macduff’s violent action, as a karma on Macbeth, is justified by its good intention of saving Scotland from the tyranny.
The above examples of karma contrast against the deadly karma on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In Macbeth’s case, he performs all the violence based on his desire for power and the fear in securing it. Accordingly, he is subjected to karmic effects, which mostly take the form of internal struggles. Booth concluded that, all three murders towards Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family “are followed immediately by scenes of suffering and self-tortures” (Booth 31). After Duncan’s murder, “every noise appals” Macbeth and he hears ominous voices threatening that he could no longer sleep with peace (II.ii.56). Although Macbeth does not show explicit guilt after Banquo’s death, his sub-conscience tortures him. He is startled by the image of Banquo’s phantom despite his self-regard as a fearless man. Macbeth’s soul becomes weary after murdering Macduff’s family. He pessimistically believes that “[his] way of life / [i]s fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / [a]nd that which should accompany old age, / [a]s honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / [he] must not look to have.”(V.iii.22-6). Ironically, Macbeth has traded his soul, friends, honour for a fruitless crown and a lifeless life. He is caught in a tragedy of his own making. In this way, the karma on Macbeth manifests as his internal struggles. Despite sympathy towards Macbeth, Macbeth’s selfishness, betrayal and violence deserve his own deadly and violent karma. As suggested by the Bible, “For the wages of sin is death” (Roman 5: 23). Therefore, given his murderous deeds, his death has to be brutally violent for moral justification. Macbeth’s tragic death implies that Shakespeare has acknowledged the immorality of Macbeth’s violent deeds.
Lady Macbeth, similarly, has to pay a price for “pouring [her] spirit in [Macbeth’s] ear, / [a]nd chastise[s] with the valour of [her] tongue” (I.v.24-5) Ribner commented that:
The relationship between Macbeth and his wife steadily deteriorates . . . . The force of evil severs Macbeth from the rest of humanity; it breaks also the bond which ties him to his wife. He lives more and more closely with his own fears into which she cannot intrude . . . . No longer does he confide in her. (Ribner 164)
Considering Lady Macbeth’s admiration to Macbeth and her devotion to help him get the throne, psychological separation between the couple is unbearable to Lady Macbeth. It is reasonable to deduce that this psychological separation may explain her mental breakdown and loss of masculinity displayed before. The fact that the seemingly evil Lady Macbeth is also subjected to karmic condemnation from her own conscience may signifies her humanness, but more importantly, the deadly karma is to impose moral judgement on her behaviours.
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Karma of a particular behaviour reflects its moral nature and judgement. In Macbeth, not all violent deeds result in bad karma. Considering the play is set in a political disturbed period in which Scotland was first traumatized by traitors and then Macbeth the Tyrant, violence, to a certain extent, was a norm in that era. The fact that Scotland restores her order through violence against Macbeth suggests that some violence is morally right. These characters who perform violence for morally right reasons can be exempted from bad karma. Karma, in Buddhist belief, is controlled by a “Supreme Being”. Shakespeare, as a “Supreme Being” of this play, reflects judgements towards the characters’ behaviours with different karmas resulted. Karma on violence, therefore, gives the audience some ideas on the morality of violence.
Violence is the linking element that drives plot development. It is through the recurring nature of karma that violence in Macbeth “trammel[s] up the consequence” (I.vii.3) of Macbeth’s self-destruction. By designing different karmic effects, Shakespeare explores the good and evil of violence. Although sympathy towards human flaws may be valued, it is necessary to have deadly karma for ill-intended murders committed. Violence, therefore, is not merely a part of the plot. It is the driving force of the plot and a subtle exploration on morality of violence.
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