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Three Structural Flaws in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Macbeth – Three Structural Flaws

by Thomas M Lahey, tlahe@lahey.com

1) Introduction.  Below, I present three structural flaws that occur in Macbeth.  I found it interesting when I searched (Google and Bing) for “structural flaw, Macbeth”, the searches returned nothing worth reporting.

1.1  First Flaw.  The Letters.  On his journey to Inverness, Macbeth writes letters to his lady, those letters arrive at his home before Macbeth; they arrive in spite of Macbeth racing to Inverness so that his lady can prepare Inverness for their king’s visit.

1.2  Second Flaw.  Macbeth, not his Lady, Kills Duncan.  This second flaw, bigger than the first, might be the biggest depending on how much effort you believe Lady Macbeth will require to convince her husband he must murder Duncan after Lady Macbeth has learned she cannot do it.  Duncan is Macbeth’s king, kinsman, a guest in his home, and has bestowed honors upon Macbeth; there is also the problem of Macbeth having “ambition, but without\ The illness should attend it.”

1.3  Third Flaw.  Seating at the Banquet.  This flaw notes that since Banquo is the “chief guest,” there should be a seat for Banquo at the right hand of Macbeth or as Orson Welles staged it in his Macbeth, at the end of the table, opposite Macbeth.

2)  The letters, Act 1, Scene 5.  Macbeth’s letters to his lady arrived before he did.  This is a structural flaw because Macbeth knows he is competing with Duncan as to who will arrive at Inverness first.  Macbeth has little, if any, time to arrange for letters to be delivered faster than he will travel to Inverness.  Duncan wants to honor Macbeth by being first to Inverness and preparing for Macbeth’s arrival instead of Macbeth preparing for Duncan’s arrival.

  • Duncan invites himself and his court to Inverness (line 1.4.48), “From hence to Inverness, ….” Note.  Not two days hence but hence, i.e., the court will leave today for Inverness.
  • Macbeth announces (lines 1.4.51-3), “I’ll be myself the harbinger and make joyful\ The hearing of my wife with your approach;\ So humbly take my leave.”  After an aside, Macbeth leaves to return to Inverness and tell his lady of the court’s visit.  Duncan has told Macbeth the court will leave today.  Where will Macbeth find the time to write letters and arrange for their delivery while he is racing with Duncan to being first to Inverness?
  • Duncan orders (lines 1.4.63-4) “Let’s after him,\ Whose care is gone before to bid us welcome.”  Duncan states that he and his court will pursue Macbeth who departed earlier to have his castle prepare to welcome the court.
  • Lady Macbeth notes (line 1.6.64) to Macbeth, “Thy letters have ….”  Macbeth has sent letters en route, more than one letter arrived at Inverness before he did.
  • Macbeth arrives, greets Lady Macbeth and announces (Line 1.5.63), “Duncan comes here to-night.”  How did Macbeth know?  Macbeth believed, based on Duncan’s statements noted above, that Duncan would begin the journey only slightly after Macbeth and would push to arrive at Inverness as soon as possible.
  • Duncan (lines 1.6.24-27) to Lady Macbeth at Inverness, “Where’s the thane of Cawdor?\ We coursed him at the heels, and had a purpose\ To be his purveyor: but he rides well;\ And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath holp him\ To his home before us.”  Duncan, by arriving before Macbeth, would prepare Inverness for Macbeth’s arrival instead of Macbeth preparing for Duncan, another token of Duncan’s high regard and appreciation of Macbeth.

Case closed.

3)  Who Kills Duncan?  Why is this a flaw?  Because there isn’t any specific transfer of responsibility from Lady Macbeth to Macbeth to have him kill Duncan and there isn’t sufficient time within the constraints of the play to have that transfer happen.

Thrice Lady Macbeth states she will kill Duncan:

  • 1.5 56.  “That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,”
  • 1.5 74-5. “you shall put\ This night’s great business into my dispatch;”
  • 1.5 82. “Leave all the rest to me.”

Act 1, Scene 7.  Macbeth waffles on killing Duncan while Lady Macbeth insists they kill him, together they devise a plan for her to do so.

Act 2, Scene 1.  It’s after midnight, Macbeth bids Banquo and Fleance good night, they retire.  Next, Macbeth arranges for Lady Macbeth to ring a bell to signal Macbeth should proceed to kill Duncan.  Macbeth imagines he sees a dagger leading him, a bell rings, Macbeth exits to kill Duncan.

Clearly, in the interval between Acts 1 and 2, Macbeth and his lady must agree Macbeth will kill Duncan.  These events must occur for Macbeth to kill Duncan:

  • Their guests must be entertained;
  • Duncan must leave the festivities, go to bed, and fall asleep;
  • Drug the guards and have the drugs take effect, knowing they must go to guard Duncan before they pass out;
  • Lady Macbeth must go to Duncan’s chamber after both he’s asleep and the guards join Duncan and fall asleep, learn she is unable to kill Duncan and leave his chamber;
  • Lady Macbeth must find Macbeth, extract him from entertaining their guests, retire to their chamber where she explains to him she is unable to kill Duncan;
  • Finally, the most difficult part:  Lady Macbeth must convince Macbeth he must kill Duncan.

Lady Macbeth admits that she tried but couldn’t kill Duncan, 2.2.15-16, “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t.”  Line 2.2.18, Macbeth announces to his lady, “I have done the deed.”

When you consider the constraints, there isn’t sufficient time to transfer the responsibility to kill Duncan.

4)  Third Flaw.  3.4.54, “The table is full.”  The Macbeths are hosting a dinner for the nobles.  Prior to the banquet, Macbeth has greeted Banquo as “chief guest” (3.1.1).  As such, Banquo is to be seated at the main table with his host, i.e., there should be two seats vacant at Macbeth’s table:  a seat for Macbeth and another for Banquo, the chief guest.  Clearly, the quote contradicts this observation.

Copyright 2017, Thomas M Lahey

Published inShakespeare Criticism

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