A Critical Examination of Conflict within Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear

Good vs. Good

Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of conflict, often focusing on a clash between characters. I propose that these conflicts are very rarely a war between good and evil but rather a clash between two goods, and in this way, Shakespeare’s plays are rich and complex, raising questions about the tension between family and state, love and authority, and ambition and loyalty. By examining tragedies such as Macbeth and King Lear I will argue that the lamentation felt by the characters in these plays stems from an inability to reconcile one good with another. Rather than portraying black and white characters where a morally sound protagonist faces an evil foe, Shakespeare presents the epitome of good and pits that good against those who show a negation from such. By doing this he encourages the audience to question opposing ideologies within society and the impact such tensions have on humanity.

King Lear is perhaps one of the most obvious portrayals of conflict between two goods, as it establishes a tragic scenario in which Lear is not able to recognise true love from his daughter Cordelia because of his desire for absolute authority. The tension between the King and his daughters mounts when he encourages them to publicly express their affection in a theatrical bid to possess part of their father’s kingdom. Out of ignorance, blinded by his desire to be treated as the ultimate authority, Lear tragically fails to recognise the honest expression of love from Cordelia, because he holds tightly the right of a king to demand loyalty and respect. The tragedy here is that Cordelia does respect him, as is she loyal, but she doesn’t wish to taint such love by expressing it with false theatrics and silky words, as her sisters do. “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/ According to my bond, no more no less” (Shakespeare, W. 1972, p.64), she says to her father. In an impulsive reaction against rejection of his command, Lear takes his daughter’s silence as an insult and lashes out in hurt. It is through this sentimentality that conflict and tragedy arises, because as King, Lear allows his authority to overpower his sense of family loyalty, blinded in the moments of crisis when he should show affection towards his loved ones.

Essentially, King Lear is not depicted as a morally corrupt or self-interested character; rather his deficiency stems from his inability to reconcile state with family responsibility. Where Edmund and Gonerill are corrupted by their self-interest, Lear’s fault is more pure. Though he acts rashly on several occasions, his love and generosity is evident as he is quick to give to those he cares about. His undesirable behaviour stems from his sense of divine right as King, and his impulsive nature. His love for his daughters is genuine but clashes with his role as social authority because he cannot reconcile state responsibility with family, as one requires what the other forbids. The reason such mutually good responsibilities clash is because he wants them so completely – absolute rule and unconditional love. The great tragedy of Lear is that both his ability to love and to rule wisely are tainted because of this conflict, and as a result he is unable to give either (his love is conditional and his rule as king is tainted by his decision to split land between daughters) Due to his radical decision to divide his lands, Lear’s generosity and love come into conflict with his authoritative responsibilities as King. His love becomes corrupted by his determination to hold absolute authority, as he is robbed of human sympathy in moments that require it, such as family matters. What all this indicates is that total authority cannot be exercised successfully alongside family obligation and love, and thus the legitimacy of absolute rule is questioned within the play.

Macbeth is another of Shakespeare’s plays that demonstrates a character deeply conflicted by waring responsibilities. Despite his brutal and calculated deeds, it is difficult to view Macbeth as purely evil, which makes him an intriguing character not easily defined. As Robert Heilman notes, Macbeth can be dually presented as morally defective and yet morally triumphant, and refers to him as an example of “criminal as tragic hero” (Heilman, R. B. 1977). Indeed the first glimpses of Macbeth portray him as a triumphant warrior, brave, loyal and respected: “brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name – disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel” (Shakespeare, W. 1967, p.54). Only when he is denied the authority he desires does he begin to indulge in his plotting, encouraged by his wife and the witches. As G. K Hunter points out, the horrifying potential, even penchant, that Macbeth shows for destruction is held inside human morality largely by bonds of loyalty, which are easily severed (Hunter, G. K. 1967). This appears to be accurate, as the respect and loyalty that Macbeth commands at the beginning of the play is lost as his ambition pushes him further and further from his comrades. What this indicates is a friction within Macbeth between his two best qualities, as excessive ambition denies what loyalty requires.

This conflict between goods is also demonstrated in Lady Macbeth, as she must shed her womanly sympathies and nurturing instincts in order to be filled with the dark power that drives ambition. “Come, you spirits that tend on my mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty” (Shakespeare, W. 1967, p.66), says Lady Macbeth. By this she asks to be able to cast aside the ideals and traits attached to femininity in order to adopt the courage and drive associated with masculinity. Nicholas Grene argues that this is not only an appeal to possess man-like ruthlessness, but for a much more fundamental denaturing of the self, whereby all natural instincts must be suppressed (Grene, N. 1996). The conflict here is the assumption that such ambition and power cannot exist within the domestic realm. Lady Macbeth acknowledges this when she dramatically declares that she would dash out her offspring’s brains in order to fulfil her ambitions. What this indicates is that there is a collision between the domestic, female domain and the masculine, which can lead to devastation. So again Shakespeare suggests a collision of goods, as he depicts a character who in order to adopt one set of responsibilities must reject another.

The tragedy of Macbeth lays in the fact that Macbeth, and in fact Lady Macbeth, become so embroiled in their scheming that once their initial murderous deeds are committed they find it difficult to stop the flow of devastating circumstance that follow. This is the notion of Homo homini lupus, which translates roughly to man is wolf to man, and relates to the horrors that humans are capable of.Macbeth and his wife’s descent into a kind of madness through such evil actions is clearly demonstrated as she struggles to reconcile her guilt with her ambition and Macbeth begins to see haunting apparitions of those he has killed. This delusion demonstrates an inner turmoil and sense of guilt that would not be present unless some moral conscience was in play. Therefore, though Macbeth’s merciless acts are unmistakably detestable, sympathy for him, and indeed his wife, is still possible because of the fact that both seems to want to stop killing, but through some moral deficiency and weakness of character are incapable of doing so.

The role of the mysterious Weird Sisters demonstrates the fallibility of humanity to give in to self -interest and desire. As Hunter, G. K. states, “They cannot plant thoughts in the mind, but they may incite to thought and kindle desires… they wait everywhere to disturb and torment human weakness” (Hunter, G. K. 1966, p.4). Macbeth’s weakness is his “vaulting ambition” which motivates him to take such drastic and dastardly action. This also highlights human potentiality to either resist or give in to the natural desire to serve ones best interest – Macbeth could have resisted the suggestions of his wife and the witches, rather than plot against those that considered him loyal. As Hunter further articulates, “Macbeth’s two great qualities, loyalty and bravery, are released from their double harness by the witches’ prophecy, and, pulling against one another, pull Macbeth apart” (Hunter, G. K. 1966, p.7) By giving in to lure of the witches and allowing his ambition to be motivated by self interest Macbeth becomes susceptible to corruption. Macbeth meets his downfall, as his strongest virtues war against one another. He loses the respect and loyalty of his men as his ambition grows, demonstrating that one virtue must give way to another. What is significant, and what allows Macbeth to be considered both a criminal and tragic hero, is the fact that ambition is not inherently an evil or non-virtuous quality – it is the actions that stem from this that are despicable. Therefore Macbeth portrays a conflict of one virtue or good (honour, loyalty) with another (ambition), rather than pitting a wholly evil character against a noble one, as the protagonist is a complex representation of moral corruption demonstrating the illegitimacy of self-interest.

The natural fact that human’s are susceptible to desire and prone to weaknesses arise again in King Lear, as Shakespeare undermines the notion of the divine right of kings. Edmond suggests that there is no divine cause for human weakness or immorality, but recognises that fault is often mistakenly attributed to some influence from the gods/universe:

“This is the excellent foppery of the word, that when we are sick in fortune – often surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance… and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting on” (Shakespeare, W. 1972, p.72), he says.

This stance places greater responsibility on the individual, and suggests that humans possess a natural compulsion to act in self-interest, which clashes with the religious practice of stifling immoral desires and divine authority. This is supported throughout the play, with a distinct absence of divine presence (for instance, Lear’s prayers to retain his sanity go unanswered, and he proceeds to lose his wits), which emphasises the fault, and goodness, in humanity as being natural, not determined by gods. Perhaps this is why Edmund, one of the most corrupt characters of King Lear, announces: “Thou Nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound” (Shakespeare, W. 1972, p.72) – he rejects absolute authority in any form, be it King and state rule or law of the gods.

The King’s belief that he should wield absolute power because he was appointed by God is clearly a problem within the play, as this position comes into conflict with other natural desires such as love and compassion for family. As Gill states, “Kings are often at their most vulnerable – and therefore most human – when their troubles are a combination of political and family problems” (Gill, R. 1998). This is accurate in that Lear fails to love his children unconditionally as a father, as is his natural desire, because of his belief that he holds complete authority as King. He seems to think that he can claim total authority from his daughters as well as the state, calling Cordelia his “sometime daughter” (Shakespeare, W. 1972, p.65), but of course what Lear misses is that Cordelia is always his daughter, regardless of his stature. His belief clashes with the notion of Nature as the most powerful motivator, and so within the play a world void of Gods is contrasted against the powerful sway of nature.

As someone that believes in divine intervention, Lear puts great stock in his god (presumably the Christian God), whom may well represent the ultimate father figure. Lear demands the kind of fatherly love that would be bestowed a god, as well as the complete authority that the divine command. But within the play the notion of a present God, influential in human existence, is absent. Jonathan Dollimore raises the question of both a world and its creatures that has been created lame: “Given a belief in decay the inference that the human race and the world have been either miscreated or abandoned is an easy one to draw, especially since decay contradicts the idea of an immanent God” (Dollimore, J. 1989, p.100). The theme of decay in King Lear is explored through Lear’s descent into madness, the breakdown of family loyalty and the crumbling of the state. Here it is possible that Shakespeare is commenting on a world where God is absent and Nature thrives, a world where human desire can lead to vice or virtue depending on one’s motivation. This contrast is explored within the play by the influence of Nature, and the natural aspects of humanity. Where gods are absent, Nature seems to flourish within the play, with much of the action taking place out doors, and characters indicating a natural desire to serve their best interest: “Who in the lusty stealth of nature take more composition and fierce quality than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed” (Shakespeare, W. 1972, p.72), says Edmund. By portraying religion and state rule as absolute in their authoritative role and pitting them against the wild and base disposition of Nature, Shakespeare challenges the opposition of the two within society by portraying the corruption of human potentiality that occurs through such a collision.

The essentially tragic idea that Shakespeare presents, is that potentially moral and ‘good’ characters are corrupted because one good will not allow for another and the two cancel each other out – the state establishes absolute authority, and so denies the unconditional love that family requires; loyalty and obedience clash with the ambition for power and authority etc. The plays also demonstrate that there is an inherent fault in humanity that allows for corruption, as the character’s strengths turn into vices through self-interest and lead to the tragic fall of once noble figures.


Primary Texts

Shakespeare, W. 1972, King Lear (New Penguin ed.), Penguin Books, London, UK, pp. 61 – 183.

Shakespeare, W. 1967, Macbeth, (New Penguin ed.), Penguin Books, London, UK, pp. 53 – 138.

Secondary Sources

Dollimore, J. 1989, ‘The disintegration of providentialist belief’ (chapter 5), in Radical tragedy : religion, ideology, and power in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Harvester, New York, US, p. 100.

Gill, R. 1998, Mastering Shakespeare, Macmillan, London, UK, p. 28.

Grene, N. 1996, Shakespeare’s Tragic Imagination, Macmillan, London, UK, p. 202.

Heilman, R. B. 1977, ‘The Criminal as Tragic Hero: dramatic methods’, in Aspects of Macbeth, Edwards, P & Muir, K. (ed.) Cambridge University Press, London, UK p. 26.

Hunter, G. K. 1967, ‘Introduction’, in Macbeth, (New Penguin ed.), Penguin Books, London, UK, p. 9.

Hunter, G. K. 1966, ‘Macbeth in the Twentieth Century’, in Aspects of Macbeth, Edwards, P & Muir, K. (ed.) Cambridge University Press, London, UK, pp. 1 – 10.

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