Research article
Issue: № 4 (118), 2022

DOI: https://doi.org/10.23670/IRJ.2022.118.4.114


Научная статья

Оуян Мэйхэ1, Сюн Инцзе2, *

1 ORCID: 0000-0002-4875-2805;

2 ORCID: 0000-0003-0029-5884;

1 Шанхайский университет политических наук и права, Шанхай, Китай;

2 Восточно-Китайский университет политических наук и права, Китай

* Корреспондирующий автор (13482813557[at]163.com)


Макбет превратился из лояльного министра страны и героя нации в узурпатора и убийцу. Почему он продолжал убивать министров и лояльных министров после того, как пришел к власти? Что привело к таким резким переменам? В данной статье, с помощью этической литературной критики и подробного ознакомления с произведением «Макбет», утверждается, что причинами, по которым Макбет стал другим человеком после того, как убил короля Дункана, являются его трудные отношения с этической идентичностью, с этическими отношениями и этическим выбором, а также политико-этические трудности, с которыми приходилось сталкиваться Макбету в историческом контексте, которые не только привели к потере прежнего устройства в личных отношениях Макбета, но и разрушило мораль и порядок его нации. Трагический финал «Макбета» дает читателям и зрителям этическое просвещение о том, что стремление отстраниться от моральных ценностей приводит к пагубному концу, в то время как сила морали и справедливости является фундаментальной гарантией восстановления этического порядка; приобретение прав может быть получено лишь с помощью этики и справедливости, в то время как их приобретение путем лишения прав других чревато скорым концом.

Ключевые слова: этическая литературная критика,Макбет, проблема этической идентичности, проблема этических отношений, проблема этического выбора, политико-этическая проблема.


Research article

Ouyang Meihe1, Xiong Yingjie2, *

1 ORCID: 0000-0002-4875-2805;

2 ORCID: 0000-0003-0029-5884;

1 Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, Shanghai, P.R. China;

2 East China University of Political Science and Law, P.R. China

* Corresponding author (13482813557[at]163.com)


Macbeth has changed from a loyal minister of the country and a hero of the nation to a usurper and murderer. Why did he keep killing ministers and loyal ministers after he came to power? What brought about such a drastic change?This paper, by means of ethicalliterary criticism and a close reading ofMacbeth, holds that the reasons why Macbeth became a different person after he had killed King Duncan are the ethical identity predicament, the ethical relationship predicament, the ethical selection predicament and the political ethical predicamentMacbeth suffered from in the historical context at that time, which not only made Macbeth's personal life and environment lose their normal state, but also destroyed the moral and order of the nation. The tragic ending of Macbeth gives readers and viewers the ethical enlightenment that the pursuit of non-moral values cannot lead to a happy ending, and the power of morality and justice is the fundamental guarantee for the restoration of ethicalorder, the acquisition of rights can only be obtained by means of ethics and justice, and those acquired by depriving others of the relevant rights cannot last long.

Keywords: EthicalLiteraryCriticism,Macbeth,Ethical Identity Predicament, Ethical Relationship Predicament, Ethical Selection Predicament, Political Ethical Predicament.


The story of "Macbeth" is made up from Holinshed's "Chronicle of Scottish History", but with Banquo, the porter, and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking from Shakespeare's creation. The addition of these and the plot change highlights the protagonist's ethical predicaments, worthy of further consideration by readers. Today we read such classics and reveal the ethical implications in the philosophy of value, which is of great significance, "without ethics, there could be no aesthetics; without ethical choices, aesthetic choices would go impossible. Pursuing the ideal balance of Sphinx factors, finding the ethical value of literary classics, cultivating readers' ethical awareness, and learning teachings from literary classics are undoubtedly a key aspect for the existence of literary classics"[1, P. 3], and"the value of literary classics is embodied in its ethical value, and the artistic aesthetics are only an extension of their ethical values, or the form and way to realize the ethical values"[2, P. 142]. Most of the settings in the work are bloody, horrible atmospheres haunting, in addition to power struggles, and the suppression of justice. In Shakespeare's view, "man is a mixture of good and evil, and changes with the changes of circumstances, rather than innate"[3, P.97].

Recently in the research of Macbeth come three transitions:"in content, it returns to daily culture and political life; in mode, it abandons high theoretical methods, introduces latest results of politics, history, and sociology, indeed the dualistic historical view of 'subversion/inhibition' of neo-historicism is challenged; in orientation it focuses on the contemporary and realistic significance of literary works, especially reflections on violence and terrorism"[4, P. 67].Simply, the destruction of the hero's morals is the main ethical line. The tragic character is embodied in his transition from a positive national hero to a negative treason criminal. "The characterization of Macbeth broadens the scope types of tragic protagonists, more importantly, revealing the nature of human beings in specific situations"[5, P. 120].Theatmosphere makes us feel gloomy and frightened. The atmosphere of fright and darkness nearly enveloped the whole drama."Macbeth and his wife's pathological metaphors implied disordered society, lost heroes, together with disillusioned ideals. Scientific logos has no way to cure moral diseases. While the science and technology develop, social morality may generally decline. Facing this social reality, Shakespeare tried to give a treatment plan. Shakespeare pinned his hopes on religious beliefs, believing that people can improve themselves by improving their personal moral level, and then influence others, so as to make the whole society develop in a good direction"[6, P. 107].However, the final ending brightens up, and the world is still hopeful: the evil forces almost completely destroyed, justice and humanity finally triumph.

Macbeth's ethical identity predicament

Macbeth's tragedy stems from the multiple perplexity in his ethical identity. As the king’s kinsman who has repeatedly accomplished military exploits, due to the ambitious and rampant selfish desires, he violated his identity and obligation as courtier and reduced to injustice- assassinating the king to seize throne. Macbeth kills Duncan, reminding readers of the story between Cain and Abel in Genesis. Cain stabbed Abel out of hatred and jealousy. Superficially, Abel is a shepherd and Cain is a farmer. What is rooted is the primitive hostility running for survival, metaphorically, alluding to sort of killing civilization, the ruthless conflicts among familymembers.

After gaining the throne by improper artifices, Macbeth didn’t fulfill the ethical responsibility a king should bear to protect his subjects and serve the country. In order to consolidate his improper interests by conspiracy, he arbitrarily massacred the national merits regardless of the country safety, leaving the pain and struggle in his heart which made him "‘twere best not know myself" (Act 2, scene 2), but this kind of heartfelt humanity is too little for the protagonist. Scilicet, Macbeth's ethical identity is trapped in. How terriblethepredicament is, and how profound the moral education is given to readers: if a person’s desires and ambitions are not restricted by reason and social ethical environment, if a person’s personality does not develop within the regulations of ethics and morality,orisnotdirectedbyreasonandmoral,butrelyingonnaturalemotionsandirrational temptations, the tragedy of being betrayedaround shall be predestined and determined.

The witches’ s prophecy suggested an inherent concept in Macbeth’s mind. The witchesare actually the implication of human evil, and their function is not to stimulate Macbeth's ambition, but to show his inner darkness. This concept gradually eroded and changed his character. The leading character shew far from the patriotic at the very start. The image of the patriot is getting lower and lower, from a moral jumbo to a dwarf. Macbeth's spirit went astray: he could see the blood-stained knife in the air, and his mind was full of bizarre and terrifying phantoms, and even ordinary noises would surprise him. Macbeth's pain commenced after he put an end to Duncan’s life. Being so frightened by his behavior, he had hallucinations. Ordinary knocks on the door had a dreadful effect on Macbeth (9 knocks sounded in the play after Duncan’s death).

For a famous battle-tested general, how could he be scared by the sound of a knock on the door?! This kind of external voice resulted not in disturbing Macbeth's external body, but it was his inner soul that was easier to be disturbed. Socrates held that one’s soul is immortal. Macbeth’s various bestialities and heavy killings were brought about by his wild schemes to plunge him down to the ethical predicament in identity. His actions seem a drunk walking on the journey. The thwarted desires accompany him, leading his body and soul disjointed. He lost his way as subject and king, and for this, he got lost in his reason and no longer had any wisdom to be mentioned. "When the soul thinks on its own, it enters the stateofpurity,eternity,immortality,andimmutability.Itisstableandunchanging,blended unchanging, and does not change itself, such a soul state is called wisdom." [7, P. 41-42]. Without a soul, Macbeth couldn’t see the meaning of life. He takes killing as habit and hobby.

Inthenineteenthcentury,thefamousBritishessayistandliterarycriticThomasDe Quincey (1785-1859),divided literature into literature of knowledge and that of power. The former taught readers, and the latter touched the reader. He concludes that theknockonthedoormakesthemurdererfeelscared:withthemurderofKingDuncan, in the Macbeths, humanity ceases to exist, while demonic disposition prevails. The knock on the door caused a counterproductive impact on the demon side. The resurgence of humanity impacted the demon nature, and the demon nature began to be driven out step by step. Macbeth began to feel the funk of "hell" and "demon world". Readers or viewers could feel somewhat "compassion" and "affright", thus achieving what Aristotle called "catharsis" effect. De Quincey believes that Macbeth’s fear is caused by the struggle between humanity and demon in the protagonist’s mind. He said, "We heard the knock on the door; the knock on the door clearly predicted the initiation of the reaction; the resurgence of human nature impacted the demon disposition; the pulse of life came to beat once again" [8, P. 228]. What de Quincey emphasized is readers’ feelings and impressions are much more important than readers’ thinking and rationality which the romanticism critics also claim. The reason why the knocks on the door in Shakespeare’s play is unforgettable for readers and audiences is the Macbeth'sinternal"self" – the"self"thatisbewitchedbythewitch'switchesandisincompatible with the surrounding ethical environment, begins to move and graduallybecomes active. The external "self" appears weaker and its spirit more and more dwarfed. Though Macbeth's demon soul cannot directly make people feel sublime, for sublime is a reflection of great soul, from Macbeth’s inner hardship and loneliness, the interpretation of "don't do this" will lead to a sense of sublimity.

Alan Sinfield divides Macbeth's murder into two parts: killing MacDonwald and murdering Duncan. He deems that the former is "violence that the state considers legal" while the latter is "violence illegal" [9, P. 194].Here lies a political and ethical contradiction: Macbeth killed the country’s betrayer as a general but he murdered the king as a betrayer.

After assassinating Duncan, he was in absent-mindedness, like a frightened bird, terrified of Duncan's blood, thunderous sound in his head. Sleeping no more constantly repeated and crazy thoughts beat Macbeth silently but veryheavily like a hammer. He fell into a state of ethical chaos: the bitter and sad image of the king hovering in his sleep, occupying his entire mind, and conversely took his anima like a devil.

Macbeth slaughters in order to preserve the murderous fruits, he aims to completely disintegrate social order. Macbeth sent someone to assassinate Banquo. In the middle of the banquet, he learned that his plan had been fulfilled. Suddenly he looked stunned. He saw Banquo's bloody head, and forgot the nobles around him waiting for his order, his muscles stiff, his eyes widened, and his mouth half-opened in extreme horror. Therefore, his body trembling like epilepsy, his teeth clenched, foam spraying from his mouth, he fell to the ground with a heavy muffled noise in chest.

At this moment, Macbeth's soul is already full of malice. Killing has turned into a tool and means for his getting rid of terror. Loving his people that a benevolent king should do is unfamiliar and trivial for him. In his view, life and death are the same. Murder has evolved into a habit, wiping out his human awareness. In theconstant killings, his heart became harder and harder, and he firmly sticked to the fate predicted by the witches. Even if driven into a difficult situation by the enemy, he is still fighting like a beast, just pondering on the witches' prediction: as long as the person they said can kill him does not appear, he shall stand up forever.

Macbeth's ethical identity suffers him from difficult situations in three respects: "firstly, he has theethical principles of king and subject, father and son; in his mind, he knows thatloyalty is the obligation of a subject; secondly, although he had been bewitched by witches before, Macbeth still respected the king then. Thirdly. For this period, the existence of his moralityshallbe in sharp contrast with his later loss of morality, underlining the degeneration of human nature and intensifying the tragic effect" [10,P. 41].

Macbeth's predicament in the ethical relationship between husband and wife

Macbeth also faced ethical predicament in the relationship between husband and wife. In a feudal patriarchal society, unmarried virgins are the father’s private property, and after marriage the wife is the husband’s private property. However,Macbeth isn’t the master at home. He was able to stab Duncan to death, completely dependent on a strong woman. Mrs. Macbeth is neither an "angel in the room" nor a "devil". She is a complete lady with ideals and ambitions like men. Similar to her husband, Mrs. Macbeth is experiencing the crisis of gender recognition and identity construction. Macbeth's feminization made her anxious, so she did her best to find the manhood lacking in her husband, to offset for thisshortcoming.

Mrs. Macbeth imagined that she was feeding the devilish little ghosts, just like a witch feeding the ghosts with milk. She gave the devil the milk that was supposed to be used to feed her child. Although her marriage to Macbeth was destined to be childless, she once claimed that "I have given suck"(Act 1, Scene 1). However, all she imagined in her mind was only the close contact with the devil. She fantasizes that she is a frightening female demon who specializes in sexual intercourse with humans in their dreams. Mrs. Macbeth is a greedy female figure. When she persuaded her husband to murder Duncan, intertwined with descriptions of sex and evil, she ridiculed Macbeth for being unmanly.

Mrs. Macbeth is more like a modern woman. In modern society, women can maintain their rights and realize their own values just like men. In feudal society, it is more difficult for women to realize their self-value. The dreams can come true only by men. The force of Mrs. Macbeth lies in her courage and willpower, not her intelligence. She never relied on others, showed weakness infront of anyone else, or confided in apprehension and anxiety to others. Although Mrs. Macbeth’s pain came later than her husband’s, her sleep was also killed. She was sleepwalking, trying to wash her blood-stained hands over and over again. After killing King Duncan, her pain came from her undamaged conscience. Because of her mental inability to withstand the tremendous pressure, she finally collapsed and put an end to her life.

The cruelty and evil of Mrs. Macbethhave been confirmed, but it is taken for granted that it stems from the feminine temperament in Mrs. Macbeth and her hardship and confusion in gender recognition and identity construction. The reason why she has difficulty in gender recognition is that on the one hand, she cannot be a complete woman in Macbeth, who lacks manhood; on the other hand, the emptiness and loneliness resulted from no offspring adds her hate to her strong feminization, so she must be strong and move closer to the "masculine self".

Once sin has mastered the soul of a person, it will produce a powerful counterforce that gradually degenerates the person. This kind of power will have a different tragic influence on the weak-willed characters such as Macbeth instead of Banquo. The detailed description of the murderer Macbeth's psychological changes from ambition, hesitation, determination, fear, suspicion, and madness reflects Macbeth's predicament in the ethical relationship between husband and wife from anotheraspect.

Macbeth's ethical selection predicament

The drama that best embodies Shakespeare's ethical self-selectionis "Macbeth". Can we choose our own destiny, or are many crucial experiences in our lives predestined? We can choose, but we cannot choose freely. At some point, this contradiction often turns into a religious myth, which makes it impossible for people to understand it rationally. In fact, contradictions or puzzles can easily stand the core of religion.

A grave crime committed by Macbeth was that he murdered a wise king who treated himkindly.Infact,themurdererhimselfknewhissinsverywell. Macbeth understood that the sin he had committed himself was a very disgraceful act: he behavedas a murderer of the king, violating the sacred obligation of hospitality.Macbeth, who was cultivated in the Christian culture, comprehended clearly that he should never do this himself. When hesitated whether to go on or not, Macbeth could not find any other reason than his "vaulting ambition", and this reason was the most fatal of the seven deadly sins. However, Macbeth was finally determined to take therisk."Tempted by ambition Macbeth murdered the king, and later was tormented with fear by a powerful imagination, conjuring up manipulations and covers up to keep himself safe. In so doing, Macbeth fell deeper in sin with his own actions, sinking into nihilistic nothingness"[11, P. 162].

Macbeth wascompelled to react against reason. Obviously, ambition is one aspect; what’s more, the enticement of the Three Witches and Lady Macbeth cannot be ignored. The three witches have amazing capacity to manipulate nature. For the sake of avenging the wives who offended their helmsman, they can set off violent storms on the sea, they can sit in a sieve and fly, and cook disgusting charm soup in their cauldron with "eye of newt and toe of frog"(Act 4, Scene 1). The ability of the witches to predict the future plays a vital role:what they foretell will definitely come true. Therefore, to a certain extent, the fate is already doomed.

Why did God allow the evil forces to tempt Macbeth to commit evil so much? Why a good man let an upright and kind king die? The temptation of this evil force is God's test of man. If Adam and Eve are not offered the freedom to choose between good and evil, their obedience to God is forced and meaningless. In "Macbeth", the author did not explain convincingly the necessity of evil, which is one of the reasons why the play is depressed and dull.

According to the teachings of the Middle Ages and early modern Christianity, the devilisanextremelypowerfulseducer,everywhere,butifonedoesnotlistentothesinisterwordsofthedevil,hecannotimplantevilintotheheart.Onlywhenyoumeetthe right apprentice, will the devil work. From the play, we can see that before coming across the witches, Macbeth and his wife talked about the assassination of Duncan. When Macbeth tried to persuade his wife from killing the king who was kind to them, she interrupted him, refuting that it was Macbeth himself who proposed the idea. Although we don’t understand when and where Macbeth wanted to start, it is indicatedthat Macbeth and his wife had planned and almost put it into practice, but the time and place were not suitable. That'sit.

If so, Macbeth had the idea and plan to kill Duncan before he met the witches, and we can understand why the witches feel that Macbeth will definitely listen to them. Just as Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s "The Tragedy of Dr. Faust" explained to Dr. Faust, he appeared not because the doctor really knew the spells that summon him, but because when people encounter mental distress, demons willcome.

Lady Macbeth knew nothing about witches. Surprisingly, she actually stood on the same line, which played a very significant role in Macbeth's final decision. In doing so, Mrs. Macbeth was driven by her desire for power and social status, hoping to obtain these by helping her husband mount the throne. Obviously, the motivation for the couple to commit crimes came from their own intentions and beliefs. This was the result of their self-selection, and this selection happened to be part of a supernaturalplan.

Imagining their life after the death of the king, Macbeth knew very well that he would pay the price whether it was in this life or in the next life. Once he becomes a king, others will follow his example by killing the kingandseizingthethrone,sohemaynotbeabletosleeppeacefullyinthedaystocome. Why this way? Duncan's blood naturally cannot stain all the seas in the world red, but this blood will always be engraved in Macbeth's memory like a nightmare. The more he wanted to suppress the fear in his heart, the more he will become its victim. Later, Mrs. Macbeth got somnambulism and forced herself to wash her hands constantly, unable to wake up from her nightmare.

In the end, Macbeth wasavenged. Why Macduff was able to win?He was not "born by a woman," but a child born by cesarean section? If there were a mother who dominates everything like Mrs. Macbeth, it would be chilling if she brought the baby into the world and then crippled it. In "Macbeth", women are ultimately excluded, but Macbeth's ethical selection predicament is not solved.

Macbeth’s political ethical predicament

Macbeth’s political ethical predicament is mainly reflected in the immorality of his political rule as a king and the unlawfulness of his political rule. As a Scottish general,Macbethisextremelybrave,butthisdoesnotmeanthathecanbecomeaking. In recognition of his achievements, Duncan gave him the title of Thane of Cawdor. Meanwhile, Duncan publicly announced the appointment of his eldest son Malcom as the Prince of Cumberland, which paved the way for the illegality of Macbeth's succession as king. Unfortunately, Macbeth's throne was won by assassinating King Duncan. In this regard, domestic subjects, especially the nobles, complained. Macbeth's throne obtained by both unethical and unlawful means kept him in fear and was deeply trapped in political ethical predicament.

Another important manifestation of political ethics is a person’s social status, which is embodied in this play by the Macbeths’ abnormal pursuit and desire for social status. In feudal society, it is shameful to have no heir. From the distance between Macbeth and his male companions, it can be seen that Macbeth is not respected by his male interest groups. Why is Macbeth so brave on the battlefield? It is very likely that he desperately needs the respect and awe of the male collective. The couple has an inferiority complex deep in their hearts. This inferiority distorts their souls and makes them have an abnormal desire for social status, just like a dwarf desires to put on the robe of agiant.

Macbeth had no children, so he could not tolerate heirs from nobles and political opponents who might compete with him for power. Because it was predicted that Banquo’s descendants would become the future king, he tried his best to eradicate the entire family of his main rival Banquo, despite the eventual failure. Macduff's son is innocent, cute, clever and trustworthy,he knows that birds can survive by eating worms and flies. Why can't he survive? The way children look at life and death is like questioning the wisdom of their elders: if it is true that his father is dead as his mother said, then why doesn't his mother buy another husband back in the market? If a rebel was put to death for taking false oaths and lying, then why didn't those who took false oaths and lie hang all the gentlemen? Anyway, there are more people who take false oaths and lie? It is because of his innocence that he has seen more humanstupidity.The innocence of Macduff’s son reflects the cruelty and ruthlessness of theadultworld, while also leaving readers and viewers with a path to get rid of the political ethical predicament: an upright and clear world.

Macbeth's perverted pursuit of political status affected his rational judgment of things. The "equivocation" that the ghost said provoked different reactions in Macbeth and Banquo. Macbeth believed it to be true, but Banquo did not. Like Macbeth, Banquo was tempted by evil, and he also admitted that as a mortal, his will was not firm and could not withstand the temptation; however, Banquo was always vigilant against these spiritual enemies. Banquo has always been able to maintain a sober head in political ethics, but Macbeth is in a quagmire.


The play "Macbeth" tells us that even if someone cannot resist the temptation and commits a crime, he will still be punished in the end: Macbeth finally betrayed his relatives and ended in a tragic end.Malcolm legally ascended to the throne, and Scotland finally restored the political and moral order of the past. For people living in a civilized world, the distinction and understanding of virtue and evil, nobility and lowliness has formed different ethical values. The contrast between Banquo and Macbeth presented to readers or audiences is just such a sharp contrast. In Shakespeare's time, people believed that to a large extent human behavior determined the fate of people, and the behavior of kings determined the fate of people in this country. Because Elizabeth had no heir, after her death, the people had eagerly expected the new king. "Macbeth" actually embodies the people's desire for the king's character at the time: instead of Macbeth’s treachery or cruelty,Duncan's generosity and kindness, the virtues of King of England and his love for the people, and Banquo’s bravery and loyalty, whose eight generations of descendants became the king.InMalcolm’swordsintheplay,itis"thevirtuessuitableforthestatusofemperor, such as justice, verity, temperance, stability, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude" (Act 4, Scene 3), aren’t these just the ethical enlightenment given to readers and audiences in "Macbeth"? ! "Macbeth is still a child of the Renaissance: classical heroism, Machiavellian political realism and even Christian beliefs are all reflected in him to varying degrees. The supermanwho transcends good and evil fights against the sinner deep in blood within him, leaving him delirious"[12](P53).This is in accordance with Shakespeare's age that people held that the role of poets is to create happiness, and the role of great poets is to teach people what is true beauty through happiness (the virtues in the king are of great and noble beauty). For the contemporary people living in an artificial intelligence society and enjoying a prosperous material life, we’d better try our best to avoid Macbeth’s ethical predicaments and pay attention to the ethical enlightenment given to us by Macbeth’s tragedy.

Конфликт интересов Не указан. Conflict of Interest None declared.

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