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A Structuralist View Of &Quot;Macbeth&Quot; Essay

3565 words - 14 pages

In "The Structural Study of Myth" Claude Levi-Strauss explains that we can discover a myth's meaning by identifying and isolating what he calls mythemes. Like phonemes in language studies, mythemes are the constituent units of myths and they find meaning in and through their relationships within the mythic structure. The meaning of any individual myth, then, depends on the interaction and order of the mythemes within the story. Many critics believe that the primary signifying system is best found as a series of binary oppositions that the reader organizes, values, and then uses to interpret the text.

Applying this structuralist approach to Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth", we find that the play revolves around two major binary oppositions with each binary opposition being connected to and interwoven with the others. The more obvious of the two centers on the binary nature of human beings --- in this case, the evil self driven by passions, as opposed to the noble self motivated by reason. The interior chaos, and the triumph of passions over reason can be reflected in society at large, thus leading to the second binary opposition, violence vs. peace.

The binary nature of humankind can be easily found in the case of Macbeth, the protagonist of the play. On the one hand, he is noble. As one of Duncan's most glorious generals, he is brave and courageous, trusted and respected. He is a man loved as well as admired by all. In Act I, Scene 2, for example, both the sergeant and Duncan praise Macbeth for his physical and mental bravery, stressing that he "carv'd out his passage" until he is face to face with the enemy general. To Duncan, he is his "valiant cousin" and "worthy gentleman." As a brave general, he does not lack kindness at all. In the eyes of his wife, Lady Macbeth, he is "too full of the milk of human kindness." On the other hand, he is cruel and evil. He murders his kind king Duncan who trusts him very much, arranges the death of Banquo and orders the slaughter of Macduff's wife and children. Behind the opposition of the two selves is the opposition of passions over reason. As a noble man, Macbeth is a man of reason who can tell good from evil. However, his cruel and villainous part is driven by passions. "The right action requires a harmonious relationship between the higher faculties of the soul and lower: between reason and will on the one hand, and ` appetite' (the passions, `affections', or `motions'), imagination and memory on the other --- but especially between reason and passion." In this play, Banquo and Duncan are the ideal example of the man of right action. However, in general, mankind, as a creature of passion, is a creature of change --- contrarious and variable. In the case of Macbeth, his reason and will are weakened and his passions become rebellious, and thus the harmonious relationship between the higher and lower faculties is transformed into strife and conflict, which in turn becomes the chief source of his...

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