William Shakespeare wrote many fantastic plays and Macbeth is no exception. Part of the reason why his plays were loved in Elizabethan times as well as today is because they are true to life. The audience can relate with the characters or situations in the play because they are emotionally involved. A literary device that Shakespeare uses is the theme of moral reversal. Morals are essentially the backbone of an individual’s being. A person’s morals will shape the type of person they are and how they will act in various situations. Simply stated morals decide how someone will live their life. The audience identifies with the characters of Macbeth because they can see the battle that is fought between a character’s desire and conscience. This battle if fought numerous times throughout the play. The outcome of these battles shapes the decisions made, which are vital to the play. Each character within Macbeth has their own set of morals but only some of them become morally reversed. In these instances desire wins the battle over conscience. A clear line is drawn that indicates the beginning of this reversal and can be traced back to the same origin.
Prime examples of characters that are morally reversed are the witches. Directly at the beginning of the play we are introduced to their corrupt thoughts when we hear them say “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I.ii.2) This one line establishes the theme and atmosphere for the rest of the play. The reversal of moral order is specifically introduced here. However the impact of these words impact many characters and Macbeth directly as a result. The witches say many things that reveal how corrupt they are. They speak of “hurly burly” which shows their desire for commotion and disorder. The witches are so immoral that they destroy the lives of others for their own satisfaction. “I’ the shipman’s card…wreck’d as homeward he did come” (I.ii.14-29) They disregard the importance of the lives of the sailor and his wife. Everything that they do is purely for their own amusement. To entertain themselves further they become involved with every aspect of darkness and disorder. They associate with Hecate and the dark sides of the moon. When Macbeth turns to the witches for answers they equivocate the truth that affects the destiny of Scotland. Their equivocations also affect Banquo and his choice to keep silent his suspicion of Macbeth. The witch’s interference caused Banquo to make this decision. Throughout the play the witches show no sign that they are not immoral. Everyone in Scotland feels the affects of their actions and that is why the disorder they cause is so satisfying. Their equivocations also influence Macbeth, Banquo, and Lady Macbeth to make decisions that will create their destiny.
A second example of moral reversal is Macbeth. He was portrayed as a valiant, noble kinsmen of Duncan in the beginning of the play. We witnessed his first ascent into immorality when he stated “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I.i.38) These words can be directly attributed to the witches. They had hailed Macbeth King and from then on he had evil and darkness on his mind. This evil caused him to betray his King, kinsmen, country and most importantly his own morals and conscience. He made the decision to kill Duncan. However, even after Macbeth had committed regicide he could not control the corruption occurring in his mind. The darkness and evil within him had prevailed and caused him to suspect everyone around him. He even saw his best friend standing in his way. The witches also planted this thought in his mind when they had told Banquo that he would father a line of kings. Their lies had written Banquo’s fate in stone. He too was soon betrayed by his friend and murdered. Macbeth now becoming a cowardly villain did not try to redeem himself in anyway and lost all traces of conscience. Words such as “ingratitude”, “treason”, and “murder” do not good deep enough for Macbeth. (The Perspective of Value 98) Immorality within him is so great that he permits the ultimate atrocity to occur. A command issued by Macbeth is carried out and Macduff’s wife and children are murdered. This act displays how morally corrupt Macbeth is. Macduff’s family became that target of Macbeth’s underlying paranoia. Everyone around Macbeth became a threat and an obstacle to remove from his path of destruction and evil that he had created. Macduff was no exception. A traitor can repent and be pardoned before God, and still be subject to the penalties of man’s justice (The Perspective of Value 97). This in its entirety is what Macbeth ultimately feared. To abolish this fear he had to remove anyone who could issue a penalty for the crimes he had committed. Macbeth would have continued on his murderous rampage had he not been stopped. He never gave a second thought to what he had done or the lives he had destroyed. He was a man who aided evil and endorsed darkness. His conscience was defeated when he plunged the dagger in Duncan’s back and would never again surface.
Elsewhere corruption and immorality was also being spread to another character with an ambition and desire to gain power. Luckily for Macbeth it was occurring among his ally Lady Macbeth. She too became reversed the moment she received the letter from her husband speaking of the weird sisters. The witches had also influenced her and she allowed evil to cloud her conscience. She too could see only obstacles in her way and plotted with Macbeth to destroy her King Duncan. The audience witnessed how immoral she had become when she stated “How tender’ tis the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out” (I.vii.55-59). The thought of a mother murdering her baby was evidence enough to prove the power of the darkness that lay within her. Consequently Lady Macbeth made no attempt to redeem herself instead she destroyed herself proving the evil within her. She could no longer capture what once was. She could no longer fathom moral order.
Moral reversal within Macbeth can be traced from character to character and ultimately begins with the witches. After a character’s morals have been distorted there is no evidence of their repair within the pages of Macbeth. In the end moral reversal not only defeats the lives of the people surrounding the catalyst (Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth) it destroys the catalyst itself. It spreads easily among the characters given the right circumstances and character traits of the people within the story. The characters that are not affected by this moral reversal stay pure until the end and good ultimately prevails over the evil and darkness created by this immorality.