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The Clash Between Good and Evil; The Shakespearian Theme
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Ahmad Naveed

William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English playwright, poet and actor. He is widely regarded as the most prolific writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is a writer of all times. He is famous for the universality of his writings. The readers relate his literary work to their emotions and instincts. He has inspired generations of writers and readers alike. Hence, the themes of his plays are also close to human nature. One of the dominating themes in his plays is the concept of good and evil. The article explains the concept in detail.  

When Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights wrote their plays, their beliefs about good and evil changed. In the mediaeval mind, good came from God, and evil came from the Devil. It was as simple as that. Human beings had no say in the matter, and good and evil were imposed on them. When someone behaved well, one was being influenced by God, and when someone misbehaved, they were under the power of the Devil, occasionally even owned by his demons.

With the Renaissance and the humanism that was influencing Europe’s cultural and artistic outlook, a more psychological concept of good and evil began to come into being. Human beings were now responsible for their actions, and the good or evil within them originated in people rather than outside agents. That transformed the drama of the Renaissance, and instead of the stock, stereotypical figures of mediaeval drama, we now began to see characters who were ‘good’ or ‘evil’, or even a mixture of the two. The audience could see them as real people like themselves and were able to become involved in their feelings and emotions rather than regard them as one would gaze at stuffed animals in a glass case. That was, of course, one of the primary reasons for the popularity of Renaissance theatre.

And so, Shakespeare and his contemporaries could create evil characters like Iago who, despite a level of evil that most audiences still gasp at, they could recognize as being real people like them. Conversely, a character like Desdemona, sweet and innocent, putting herself last in her service to others, admirable and desirable as she is to us, who could never be like her, is nevertheless recognized as a natural person like us.

As humanism took root in Europe, conditioned by such things as the growth of individual wealth and criticism of religious institutions, the distinction between good and evil began to disappear, allowing authentic psychological characters who were capable of both good and bad actions to emerge in drama, just as figures in art and sculpture were becoming more naturalistic. And so we have the physically realistic figure of Michelangelo’s David and the psychologically realistic figure of Edmund in King Lear. And we have a hero like Macbeth who can be turned from good to evil.

There was still an objective evil lingering in the real world of human beings, mainly in the form of witches. Witches, influencing human beings and seducing them into perpetrating evil deeds, feature in Renaissance drama. Audiences were fascinated by them, so they made adequate material for drama. The combination of the Devil’s agents at work and psychological characters struggling against their influence could form the drama’s conflict, so we had a play like Macbeth.

Macbeth is an excellent model of the treatment of good and evil in both Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. As a theme, it is a stark contrasting picture of the two forces, perhaps even over-simple. But that contrast provides the theatre with all the language and action surrounding them.

Macbeth begins as a ‘good’ man, a very good man – faithful, reliable and trustworthy. During the action, he becomes evil, influenced by the witches, who are agents of the power of evil. He is led on by their suggestion that he is destined to become king. The transition is accompanied by language that depicts that transition. At first, he is ‘great,’ ‘good,’ Macbeth, the hero of Scotland. The king, Duncan, calls him a ‘valiant cousin’ and ‘worthy gentleman.’ In the course of the action, Macbeth kills his opponents, slaughtering the whole of Macduff’s family and one of the children being murdered onstage. He is now ‘black Macbeth,’ ‘bloody butcher,’ ‘hell kite.’

The saintly Duncan is associated with good. When Macbeth considers killing him, he concedes that: ‘this Duncan hath borne his faculties, so meek that his virtues will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off.’ We see the direct contrast between the angels of heaven and the damnation of hell.

As Duncan and Banquo approach Macbeth’s castle for the king’s visit, the language creates a heavenly atmosphere around them: ‘heaven’s breath smells wooingly here.’ But inside the castle, it is different. The evil plotting of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth has turned it into an almost literal hell. ‘The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements,’ Lady Macbeth says. ‘Come thick night and pall thee in the most dun smoke of hell.’ Everything now in the castle is dark and hellish. There is even a comic scene after the killing of Duncan, where the gatekeeper, aroused from his sleep by Macduff knocking on the door, fantasizes about being the gatekeeper of hell. Every word, and every action, now expresses that theme.

Duncan’s son, Malcolm, and Macduff, exiled in England, now gather a force to return to Scotland and overthrow Macbeth. Sponsored by the English king, who is depicted as the agent of good, they return to Scotland, and the classic battle of good versus evil takes place. They overthrow Macbeth, and the throne is restored to its rightful king. Good has triumphed over evil.

Hence, most plays have this tension between good and evil but none as clearly, graphically, and prominently as Macbeth. Shakespeare has the art of universality and talks and elaborates the human instincts and emotions. Therefore, the readers relate his universality to their emotions and instincts.

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