The Downfall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: Opposite Directions on the Same Path

The downfall of Macbeth is most often attributed to either his own ambitions run amok or the influence of his wife’s Machiavellian manipulations.  The husband and wife work in tandem to bring about the prophecies of the Weird Sisters, and it is Macbeth’s hand that does the greater evil deed against Duncan and the only evil against Banqo and MacDuff’s family members; in essence the rise of the Macbeths to power is one of shared responsibility.  Their downfall is played out on the same road as they travel in opposite directions to and from being responsible for their own fate.  

The belief in the occult is an element of the play that drives its tragedy; an element that may be lost on modern audiences looking to find motivation for Macbeth’s murderous deeds.  The belief in prophecy is particularly important in gaining a foothold on understanding the downfall of Macbeth and his Lady.  When Macbeth first comes upon the Weird Sister and they roll out the prophecies for both Macbeth and Banquo, and by extension Duncan and his family, more is going on than just a foretelling of the future.  The prophecies instill in Macbeth the realization of his dreams, of course, but they also  portend that the darkest fears of Macbeth will be realized alongside his dreams.  Without Macbeth’s unquestioned belief in the occult and acceptance that the Weird Sisters have the power of prophecy, there would be neither a rise nor a fall.   If the rise of Macbeth to  king can be said to be a combination of belief in the Sisters and the manipulation of his wife, his fall comes about as the result of a fatal mistake on his part: mistakenly believing that he has the power to deny the future as foretold. 

Macbeth fervently believes in the power of the occult, yet he does not accept his role as mere recipient of the power of fates beyond his control.   Just as he is indecisive before the murder of Duncan, Macbeth also proves to be less than firm in his view of how the witches’ prophesying works.   Rather than merely being a blank canvas upon which is written a predestined series of events that effectively turn him into a puppet on a string to be manipulated by the Weird Sisters, Macbeth from the beginning takes a proactive stance.  This activity starts with having his indecision overcome by his wife before he kills Duncan, but the downfall begins when he begins to believe that nothing he does can change the course of future events, but only bring them to fruition.  

Many famous quotations have come from Macbeth, but it is one of the lesser known lines of the play that presents the key to understanding the downfall of the Macbeths.  “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand / Which must be acted, ere they may be scanned.”   Macbeth is aware of his fate as well as the fates of others, but as he says this he fully tosses off the shackles of his indecisiveness.  In relieving himself at last of all moral quandaries that may exist on his path toward absolute and guaranteed power, Macbeth makes the ultimate mistake in his rise that will lead surely to his destruction.  Macbeth has made decision that thinking too much is the cause of his problems.  But it is important to realize that by this point Macbeth has strange things taking place inside his head without the input from his wife.  It is also important to understand that the downfall of Lady Macbeth occurs only after she has done the opposite by making the decision to finally begin questioning her amorality.   Lady Macbeth only begins to lose her mind once she capitulates to the kind of moral quandary from which she earlier plucked her husband.  In the wife’s case it is the decision to think too much that leads to insanity. 

The opposite is true for her husband.  Macbeth’s quick descent into madness is caused by his failure to think too much and act too rashly.  What is most strange about this is that Macbeth has seen clearly that the Weird Sisters have been right about everything, yet he seems to be incapable of understanding that he really is nothing more than a cog in the machinery.  In essence, Macbeth’s life after meeting the Weird Sisters, and possibly before though there is no way of knowing, is one made entirely of effect rather than cause.  Macbeth’s actions may have caused the deaths of Duncan and Banquo, but he is not the agent of cause; he is merely doing the handiwork of some larger fate to which the Weird Sisters have access.   For much of the play Macbeth seems to understand this and accept it, but never really question it. After he has made the decision to consciously act before he can have time to think something very important changes in him.   He goes to the Weird Sisters to finally seek his own fate, but receives instead the admonition that such a thing effectively need not concern him.  Macbeth leaves the encounter secure in the knowledge no one born of woman can harm him; he is perhaps even led to assume some degree of immortality.   

The downfall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is caused by two sides of the same coin.  Each comes to a point at which they made a decision about how to respond to the forces of fate.  Lady Macbeth loses her sanity by finally coming to question whether she has to be an agent of effect or an agent of cause.  Macbeth’s downfall arrives only after he has decided to become as amoral as his wife, and only after he no longer even contemplates whether the he can be an agent of his own fate does he succumb to the madness inherent in learning that you have become just an element in a greater plan.  

Works Cited 

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.  

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear,  

Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.  

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. Nicholas Brooke. Oxford: Oxford  

University Press, 1998.  

Thompson, Mary Ives, and Francesco Aristide Ancona. “He Says/she Says: 

Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 27.3-4 (2005): 59+ 

Van Doren, Mark, David Lehman.  Shakespeare.  New York: Henry Holt and Company