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Isabella Haberstock

Mr. Clark

Honors British Literature

13 December 2017

On Life’s Fragility in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth is characterized by death and destructive

behavior. Many of the characters were destined for great things at the beginning of the book, but

their futures were abruptly taken from them when they died. Their deaths came at the most

unexpected times, and many of them were killed in brutal ways. These deaths made the remaining

characters contemplate life itself and how easily it is lost. This play represents how the fragility of

life only becomes apparent when someone dies in an unjust or sudden way.

Many of the deaths in Macbeth occurred at a time of success and happiness. When Macbeth

killed Duncan, it was right after a battle was won for Scotland. Duncan was celebrating and

rewarding those who fought for him. Everyone viewed him as a generous and great king, so no

one was expecting a tragedy to happen so soon. Duncan was completely innocent, and he was

killed because of Macbeth’s ambition. His death seemed so unnecessary and wrong, and the

characters who were unaware of Macbeth’s plans were very shocked . When Macduff discovered

Duncan’s body, he ran out of the room completely distraught and yelling “O horror, horror,

horror!” (Shakespeare II.iii.66). This is the first of many major character deaths in Macbeth, and

it put into perspective the mortality of humans.

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Another character that met a violent and untimely end was Banquo. The witches had just

prophesized that “[he] shalt get kings” (Shakespeare I.iii.67.). Since Macbeth had gotten the royal

titles that the witches predicted, Banquo was considering that they were telling the truth about his

descendants, too. When Banquo was murdered, he was going to Macbeth’s crowning feast with

his son, whom he hoped could be a king someday. He was already established as a loyal friend to

Macbeth who had a promising future, but all of that was cut short when he was brutally murdered

under Macbeth’s orders. Even though he was suspicious of Macbeth for how he got the Scottish

throne, he was definitely not expecting to be killed on the way to a celebration. His death only

really impacted Macbeth and the audience. Macbeth was haunted by Banquo’s ghost at the feast

and immediately realized that he had taken everything from Banquo. From an audience’s view

point, Banquo’s innocence was very apparent and his death seemed like an unnecessary act of


There were also many character deaths that were cruel and unwarranted. The first were

Lady Macduff, her children, and the servants in Macduff’s castle. They were ambushed when they

thought they were safe, and their deaths were just excessive acts of brutality. Even though Macduff

was Macbeth’s real target, his family was still put in danger. When Macduff found out that

Macbeth ordered their murders, he was in denial that his little children and wife were all dead.

Another unnecessary death was Young Siward. He was a young man that was very similar to

Macbeth at the beginning of the play. He was supposed to be the hero of the battle, but Macbeth

killed him. In both of these situations, the victims were struck down when they least expected it.
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The most unlikely character death in Macbeth was definitely Lady Macbeth. At the

beginning of the play, she was so strong-willed and ambitious. Macbeth’s later decisions and their

consequences caused her health to slowly deteriorate until she died. Her very sudden death had a

significant impact on Macbeth, who began to contemplate the meaning of life itself. He said that

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And

then is heard no more” (Shakespeare V.v. 24-26). He never really thought about how short life

really is until her death because he never planned to kill her and did not resent her at any point in

the play. Her passing was truly a surprise to him, unlike all the other character deaths.

The final death in the play is Macbeth’s. Throughout his kingship, he had done everything

he could to evade death. He becomes increasingly paranoid that he could lose his life, and he did

not want to face the consequences of his actions. After Birnam Wood marches on Dunsinane and

Macduff reveals that he technically was not born of a woman, Macbeth knows that he can die and

tries to withdraw from the fight. In that moment, he realized that his life was no less fragile than

any other, but decided to keep fighting until he died.

Shakespeare’s message about life’s fragility is completely applicable to the real world

because people do not often think about the imminence of death until someone they are close to

dies. Humans “are more likely to deny… the true extent of fragility: it’s scary to realize how

delicate and vulnerable your body is” (Hanson). Macbeth was especially in denial about his own

humanity and thought he was invincible. For the other characters, they had good lives and their

whole futures ahead of them, so none of them were really worried about death. When they died,

everyone else was left to wonder how death could have taken them due to their age or
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accomplishments. Ignoring the impermanence of human life causes people to not cherish their

lives or achieve their dreams, which makes death seem so sudden and heartbreaking.
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Works Cited

Hanson, Rick. “Embrace Fragility.” Rick Hanson, PhD. Dr. Rick Hanson, 12 April 2016. Web. 7

December 2017.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Sylvan Barnet, Signet Classic, 1998.