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Heather Brodie

12/21/08 Pd. 7

Ancient Psychology, Philosophy, and Macbeth

Throughout Macbeth it is apparent that the storyline, produced by William Shakespeare,

displays a latent paradigm of his own life, as well as certain social affairs of the time period.

During the age of Shakespeare and his tragedy, Macbeth, “psychology” was virtually unheard of.

Many people questioned the associations of the body, mind, and actions, and often times related

them to aspects of their religion and faith. In addition, new scientific breakthroughs helped pave

the way for how these relationships were viewed, and ultimately contributed to what we study,

and continue to study in psychology today. One can infer that psychological issues were not

readily cared for during the Elizabethan era, which can be seen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

through the biles of the body, the Wyrd sisters, and the emotional, mental, unbecoming

transformation of Macbeth.

According to the earliest Greek philosophers, the human body consists of four basic

humors, or biles: black bile, red bile (blood), yellow bile, and phlegm. A balance of these four

humors results in adequate health. However, an imbalance of one or more of the humors could

lead to disease, mental instability, or personality changes for the individual. A number of possible

situations involving the biles could have easily been influential on Shakespeare, either

consciously or subconsciously, during his writing. Macbeth’s struggles with morality and

ethicality are evident throughout the story, and are comparable to Arab psychologist Ishaq ibn

Imran’s studies of excesses of black bile. What Imran found is that an excess of black bile results

in “malikhuliya” which translates to English, melancholia. Sudden movement, foolish acts, fear,
delusions, and hallucinations, were said to be the most common symptoms, according to Imran


Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your highness?

Which of you have done this?

What, my good lord?

(to Ghost) Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake
Thy glory locks at me.

Gentleman, rise. His highness is not well.” (III, iv, 51-55)

At the sight of Banquo’s ghost sitting in his seat, Macbeth displays more than one of the

previously stated symptoms. Hallucinations, delusions, fear, and foolish acts all appear to

manifestly portray Macbeth’s illness in this trifling scene. Thus, it is possible that Shakespeare

used the relativity of the biles and human functioning to render themed temperaments for a

number of the characters. Known for her power and persuasiveness over Macbeth, perhaps Lady

Macbeth’s role throughout the tragedy is an anecdote as well. Her possible choleric disposition

may be signifying the result of an excess of yellow bile (Four Temp.).

“Lady Macbeth
O, Never
Shall sun that morrow see!
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. He that's coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
We will speak further.

Lady Macbeth
Only look up clear.
To alter favor ever is to fear.
Leave all the rest to me.” (I, v, 51-65)

It is plain to see that Lady Macbeth holds some form of power over Macbeth. She has just

instructed him on how to greet King Duncan, and is careful in explaining the details, all the

while Macbeth listens to her. A choleric tempered person does in fact gain pleasure from having

power over others, as well as by holding leadership roles. Hence, how Lady Macbeth tells

Macbeth that he can rely on her for the affair to run smoothly.

In addition to biles and humors, the Wyrd sisters play a fundamental role in the story of

Macbeth as well. The idea of the Wyrd sisters comes along with fate and destiny, which are

crucial to the tragedy. Because a man’s “weird” is his destiny, there is no doubt the Weird sisters

are key factor of the outcome of each individual character, as well as the outcome of the story as

a whole. Shakespeare felt that it was necessary to include the witches at various points

throughout Macbeth, to emphasize their role. However, Macbeth’s fate is questionable. Was

Macbeth destined to murder, gain power, and withstand his dissolving morals? This was his

destiny according to the witches, and they were sure to make him aware of it. Oppositely, was it

Macbeth’s destiny to remain in his role as thane of Glamis, until the witches came along and put

opposing ideas into his head? The dispute over which of the opposing fates is the original

remains argumentative. Whether the sisters were advocates of Macbeth’s true destiny, or simply

three witches out to meddle with human fate still challenges many. In addition to Macbeth’s, the

destinies of many other characters spur out of the weird sisters prophecies as well.
“First Witch
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

Second Witch
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

Third Witch
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!” (I, iii, 49-51)

When Macbeth and Banquo come across the three witches in the woods, the witches

immediately begin predicting the future and putting ideas into Macbeth’s head. Macbeth is

flattered, and at the same time unduly confused by the comments. He realizes what these witches

are suggesting is that something will happen to King Duncan, and Macbeth will succeed him.

Another idea suggests that the witches are merely a figment of ones imagination. Possibly

appearing as they please, for who they please.

What’s your grace’s will?

Saw you the weird sisters?

No, my lord.” (IV, i, 141-143)

Macbeth is shaken and bemused considerably by this statement by Lennox, ultimately

causing Macbeth to become frustrated with the Wyrd sisters and their unreliability.

Throughout the tragedy of Macbeth substantial factors define Macbeth’s transformation

from a nobleman to madman, such as the biles and foretelling of the Wyrd sisters. More

importantly, the one thing that has the chief role in this transformation is Macbeth himself.

Focusing on ancient philosophical and psychological ideals, it is seen that these ideas are not so
far off from ideas of more modern theories. Ibn Rushd, a Muslim philosopher of the Middle Ages

stated that “the human mind has two aspects. There is a passive intellect, which is composed of

the potential for thought and carries the details that make one personality different from another,

both physically and psychologically. It is a part of the body and dies with it. And there is an

active intellect, which energizes the passive intellect. It is actually the same in each person, is the

only part of us that survives death…” (Boeree). In reference to Shakespeare’s psychological

demotion of Macbeth, this theory makes perfect sense. Macbeth begins the story with “both

aspects” of his mind free and clear. Macbeth’s passive intellect, which is unique to himself and

his own personality, eventually falls victim to the prophecies of the witches. Henceforth, the

active intellect, which fuels it, serves as a form of encouragement. The first murder occurs. King

Duncan. Macbeth is in a state of content; both aspects of his mind are in agreement. However,

when the time comes to kill Banquo and Fleance, disagreement flairs. The clear, thought

provoking, passive intellect is almost being forced to continue by the words of the witches. At

the same time, the stimulating active intellect is experiencing feelings of guilt and remorse.

While these feelings remain strong, the passive intellect remains completely submissive to the

Wyrd sisters. This cognitive conflict results in hallucinations, delusions, and on a larger scale,

Macbeth’s spiral into insanity.

What does the tyrant?

Great Dunsinane he strongly fortifies.
Some say he’s mad, others that lesser hate him
Do call it valiant fury. But, for certain,
He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands.
Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach.
Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.” (V, ii, 12-22)

Not only is Macbeth aware of his degrading transformation, but others clearly are as well.

At this point in the story, Macbeth has fallen completely victim to the overpowering, conflicting

thoughts that quarrel in his mind. He is now delusional, power-hungry, and deranged, all of

which could have been prevented if he did not let himself pay attention to the ideas in the first


Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cowed my better part of man!
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope. I’ll not fight with thee.” (V, viii, 17-22)

When he realizes he is face to face with the one person the witches told him he could not

defeat, Macbeth immediately loses all hope and courage. He lets this feeling of defeat and

remorse get the best of him, and he loses his final battle. Macbeth’s struggles cost him much

more than just his sanity. His torturous feelings costs many others’ lives, as well as his wife’s and

his own, in the end.

Macbeth can be seen in many different ways at the end. As Shakespeare intended, it is

considered a tragedy. In other ways however, it is a story of hope and lessons learned. Macbeth

becomes too caught up in his power and will, and eventually becomes a victim of himself.

Occurring simultaneously, Lady Macbeth undergoes a transformation as well. Early on, she is a

bright, enthusiastic leader. Nevertheless, by the end of the story she has lost all power. She is
haunted at night by terrible thoughts and dreams, and is forever scarred by bloody guilt. The

balance of biles and humors, the Wyrd sisters and destiny, and Macbeth’s psychological

transformation are all defining factors of the story in various ways. Macbeth represents the

archetype of the lovable leader who got too caught up and lost sight of what was realistic,

becoming a symbol of hate to his people. While just the opposite, Macduff displays the hero

archetype. From philosophical symbols, such as Wyrd, and psychological evidence pertaining to

the biles and the psyche, there is no doubt Shakespeare’s work is much more than a simple

tragedy, but rather a journey involving endless amounts of triumph, defeat, glory, and misfortune.

Boeree, George C. 2000. The Middle Ages. 14 Dec 2008.


Four Temperament Ensemble. TvTropes. 14 Dec 2008.


Melancholia. 2008. Absolute Astronomy. 14 Dec 2008.


Tolman, Albert Harris. “The Weird Sisters”. The Views About Hamlet and Other Essays. New

York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904. pg. 89-95.

What is Psychology? 2006. a2z Psychology. 14 Dec 2008.