The Personality of Murder in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Posted on

Sigmund Freud, possibly the most accused psychologist of all time, explained personality as a result of the interplay of three opposing forces within the mind. He postulated that every individual’;s personality is dependent on the outcome of a three-way battle between selfish instincts, moralistic conscious, and realistic thinking. More recent schools of thought support other models of personality development such as the social learning theory, which states that personality is simply learned through interaction with other people (almost as if it were a chemical reaction), and the humanistic theory, which suggests personality is controlled by a process of inner-directed growth toward self-improvement. One of William Shakespeare’;s most popular plays, the tragedy of Macbeth , serves as an interesting medium for the study of these three theories of personality.

First, let’;s examine Freud’;s psychoanalytic theory of personality as applied to the character of Macbeth. If we are to confirm this theory, a battle between three forces must be seen to take place in Macbeth’;s mind. It does – in fact, the three factors match Freud’;s categories exactly: Macbeth’;s consuming desire to become king of Scotland (self-instincts), the belief that he will not become king without he murders Duncan (realistic thinking), and his hesitance to take the king’;s life in order to further this selfish scheme (moralistic conscious). Freud, however, also insists that every human being is born with an inherent desire to harm others, and while Macbeth is clearly the villain of the play, and is responsible for the death of several characters, he takes no pleasure in it. In fact, he seemed repulsed by his own actions, and was it not for the persistent prodding of his bloodthirsty wife, he might very well have abandoned his evil ambitions before they bought him to ruin.

Another theory of personality development is social learning theory, derived from the work of Gabriel Tarde, which suggests that personality is developed primarily through imitation. Advocates of this ideology would argue that Macbeth’;s personality, as well as his questionable method of success, was not the result of some strange clash of forces within his mind, but was, in fact, simply learned behavior. This is a very plausible theory – and one which history looks to support. Of the nine kings that preceded the historical Macbeth, all but two were killed, either directly by their successors or as the result of some type of feud. Self-efficiency, a social learning term, pertains to the belief that one is capable of doing what is necessary to attain one’;s goals. Following the example set by his predecessors, Macbeth displays a great deal of self-efficiency, fulfills the witches’; prophecy, and becomes king of Scotland.

A third major theory of personality is the humanistic school, which sees human beings as basically good, but paintings a picture of society as a frequently destructive force that presents to create unattainable self concepts; these unrealistic expectations typically warp the individual personality, leading to bitterness and, if left unchecked, sometimes aggression. Following this model, the witches would represent society. Their prophecy creates an unrealistic self image in Macbeth which warps his basically good nature and leads him to act violently. Humanists, however, stress the tension of the individual personality towards growth and self-actualization. They believe that the progressing self is capable of holding its own against the forces of society, allowing itself to be molded, but not defined. This particular aspect of humanistic theory does not coincide with the general development of the play.

In concluding, it is interesting to note that the word "personality" originated from the Greek term persona , which may be translated as mask . It is significant, sometimes, that while modern readers may describe the mask as a device used to disguise one’;s identity, it was, in the ancient thematic tradition, rather a convention utilized to typify a specific character. Shakespeare’;s Macbeth is perhaps a typification of the relationship murderer, a weak man with no real ambition to harm others, but led astray by the dark forces that surround him – and no matter which the theory of personality is applied to his actions, it is, in the end, his own ability to tame the external or internal forces that rage about him which leads Macbeth to his tragic and bloody end.