Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The classical comparison essay - Macbeth and Richard the Third

My latest work for Classical Writing serves as a sort of double invective, denouncing two of Shakespeare's greatest, or worst depending on how you use the word, villains and comparing their crimes at the same time.  Please do not take offense at my bashing of Richard; I only condemn the literary character that Shakespeare invented, not the historical king.

Two of cruelest villains Shakespeare created were Macbeth and Richard the Third.  Although their core characters and progressions to infamy were vastly different, the atrocities they committed were equally repulsive and similar in tragic consequence.  Both men were murderers without conscience, and their tyranny eventually drove their former friends to murder them in the name of justice.  Indeed, the wicked deeds of both kings deprived them of any friends they once knew, and the only allies they retained they kept through fear.  It is hard to discern which of these monsters was more despicable, as they both deserve eternal suffering for their crimes.

Macbeth’s origins in the play are mostly unknown, although the real-life Macbeth was the grandson of a king, Malcolm the 2nd, and was married to a woman named Gruach, the granddaughter of a High King of Scotland.  Richard the Third was the brother of King Edward the 4th, and his claim to the throne stemmed from that link, even though the throne rightfully belonged to young Edward the 5th.  The important fact is that neither Richard nor Macbeth had a true right to their kingdoms, and they had to resort to evil schemes to capture their power.

Macbeth’s initial character is far different than Richard’s, because Macbeth begins as a brave leader in Duncan’s army, whereas Richard is a total, unmitigated villain in every aspect.  Macbeth’s downfall comes from hearing the prophecy of The Weird Sisters, who promise that he will become King of Scotland.  This ignites hiss ambition, but he still refrains from murdering Duncan.  Lady Macbeth is the one who ultimately spurs events into motion, when she questions her husband’s virility for quavering from the bloody task.  Macbeth then cowardly stabs Duncan in his sleep to appease his raving wife.  Macbeth allows his wife to control him through his weak personal resolve and his greedy ambition.  Richard, in contrast, plots and executes all his crimes of his own accord, and indeed confesses at the very beginning of the play, “I am determined to play a villain… Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, / To set my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate, the one against the other.”  The chief difference in their characters is that Macbeth evolves into a villain, but Richard assumes that position from the very beginning.

Both villains acted upon the same motivations and carried out similar injustices.  Richard and Macbeth had illegitimate claims to their countries’ thrones, which they believed justified their violent methods to obtain the crown.  This false idea led them to commit several brutal murders, aimed both at personal enemies who provoked them and also at innocent bystanders.  Richard’s list of victims is too long to read in full, but it included his brother, nephews, and wife, in addition to his political adversaries.  Macbeth first slaughtered Duncan and his guards, then hired some murderers to eliminate his friend, Banquo.  Neither of these attacks was warranted, but even more reprehensible is his savage removal of his rival Macduff’s wife and son, who had done nothing at all to incite his wrath.  Macbeth was right before he turned to corruption, when he said, “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none.”  The actions of Macbeth and Richard go beyond those of a true man, and as Macbeth suggests, these murderers are not true men, but monsters.

In the end, it’s hard to determine which of the characters is more hateful.  Richard is a natural villain, and admits so in the play’s very beginning, so the audience can summon no sympathy for him. Macbeth, on the other hand, shows noble qualities in the beginning before succumbing to greed and corruption.  This renders him a more sympathetic character for a short while, but his subsequent betrayal of his closest allies only makes the audience despise him more.  Richard disturbs the audience, and Macbeth repulses them.  Neither can hope for redemption, as Macbeth poetically contemplates that no power in the world can erase the impact of his sin.  “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.”

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