Henry V, Twelfth Night, And Macbeth Essay, Research Paper
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Henry V, Twelfth Night, and Macbeth cover the whole field of Shakespearean genres, but it is amazing how Shakespeare displays a theme and carries it through in any kind of play he wants to. Historic, comic, and tragic plays are about as different as you can get, yet when we take a closer look we see many similarities among them, especially in the area of social hierarchy. In all three of these plays, Shakespeare uses a similar theme, which he conveys and proves through his characters. Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, and Macbeth’s Macbeth, Henry V’s Henry all hold social status, and they spread the social scale, one a servant, one a nobleman, and one a king. In the play we see their desires to better their social standing and climb the social hierarchy that puts them all on similar ground, ground which in some cases is somewhat dangerous, breaking social laws.
In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a servant. Granted, he is a higher-level servant; he is responsible for Olivia’s finances. When we begin the play, it seems, even through Malvolio’s melancholy personality, that he is content with his social standing. He enjoys the little social power he possesses but is not seeking a higher social standing. However, after he finds the letter, he “becomes” a new individual. His cross-gartering himself with yellow stockings, his incessant smiling, and his eager compliance with the anonymous show us the lengths Malvolio is willing to go to now to increase his social standing. His quickness to direct the letter to himself also shows us that the attitude he appeared to show at the beginning, his melancholy satisfaction with his social standing, may have been because he didn’t think there was any opportunity to advance. But after finding the letter he says, “Nothing that can be can come between [him] and the full prospect of [his] hopes” (Twelfth Night, III.iv.84).
Malvolio is a servant, desiring and seeking to climb the social ladder by marrying his master, a wealthy woman in society. Malvolio is stepping far beyond his bounds as a servant, and he doesn’t see that he is out of line. To marry up a class level was unheard of, but Malvolio doesn’t even seem to think about this. He is set on winning Olivia’s love from the moment he thinks about the things he can get from it. He isn’t really punished for his committal of a social taboo, but he is demeaned and taken back down to a servant’s level through the joke that Toby, Maria, and Feste play on him. Shakespeare doesn’t say that marrying up is wrong, because the marriage of Maria and Toby is given a positive light. Shakespeare does make it very clear that it is not proper for a servant, or anyone for that matter, to attempt to climb the social lattice, especially through marriage.
In Macbeth, Macbeth is a Thane, a much higher social status than a slave. This is a position of nobility, and Macbeth is content with it. His and Banquo’s meeting with the Weird Sisters and the subsequent fulfillment of part of the witches’ prophecies about Macbeth is what begins to discontent Macbeth. Macbeth says, “If chance may have me King, why, chance may crown me” (Macbeth I.iii.158), but it is shortly after this that Macbeth is easily drawn in by his wife’s enticement with power and prestige. He, like Malvolio, falls prey to an unclear prophecy from a trio of witches, nonetheless. Macbeth has no reason to seek a higher position in society. He has just prior been honored with another title of Thane, he owns a castle, and is financially and domestically, very secure; however when the title of King is waved in his face behind the red cloud of murder all he sees is the crown. It is his desire to move up ranks, to raise his social net worth, that dooms him.
Curiously, Macbeth is uncertain and pliable during the entire first half of the play. It isn’t until after he has Banquo murdered that he begins to harden his image and the attitude with which he governs himself. In the beginning, when he is still listening to his wife, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are a team. He tells her in a letter that he was greeted, “‘Hail, King that shalt be!’” He continues, “This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightest not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee” (Macbeth I.v.9-11). Together they were going to accomplish the witches’ prophecy, but by the time of Banquo’s murder Macbeth has distanced himself from his wife, who without, Macbeth wouldn’t have even taken the murderous step toward social advance. He is now independent, and when she asks him, “What’s to be done?” (Macbeth III.ii.49), he responds, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, till thou applaud the deed” (Macbeth III.ii.50-51). Earlier in the play he would have depended on his wife completely for guidance and would have soulfully confided his plans in her, but he has grasped hold of his manhood. He has reached the point where his quest for the crown and the accomplishments of achieving the next level in his social climb are to be his own. His mistakes, his murders, his breaking of his social obligation, and his pinnacle of pride, all culminate when he is abandoned in his castle to face the English army alone and finally killed in battle. Macbeth is heralded and blessed when he is awarded the title Thane of Cawdor, which is placed in a very positive light. Shakespeare does not say that it is wrong for one to advance in the social classes, but he succeeds in showing quite clearly that it is not one’s place to desire to achieve a greater class standing, especially through illegal means or treason.
In Henry V, Henry is the King of England. Differing from the prior two examples, he already possesses the highest possible social status. He is under no one in the public hierarchy. His questioning of the Archbishop of Canterbury with regards to France does place him on somewhat common ground with Malvolio and Macbeth. The entire theme of Henry V is about the implications of Henry’s quest for the French throne. Henry thinks long and hard about what the consequences of their going to war would be. When seeking counsel with the Archbishop, he asks, “May I with right and conscience take this claim?” (Henry V I.ii.98-99). He weighs the positives with the negatives and finally addresses his court and says, “For now we have no thought in us but France, Save those to God, that run before our business” (Henry V I.ii.315-316). He has given their war efforts and anyone who would dare try to stop them to God.
At first glance it may appear that Henry falls into the same lot as Malvolio and Macbeth, but if one were to look further, he would realize that Henry is the King, that his desire to rule the throne of France is fully within his rights as King and that he is not overstepping any social bounds or breaking any social taboo laws. He is guilty of nothing, apart from the mens’ lives that will be lost in the war. A soldier in camp makes this clear when he talks to the King who is in disguise and says,
“If the cause is not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place!’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left” (Henry V IV.i.138-144).
Henry considers this with a heavy heart, as any good king of England should do, and finally decides that it is best for England to proceed in war. He also realizes that he cannot attack without God’s backing of their army. Salisbury announces this focus and proclaims on his way to battle, “God’s arm strike with us!” (Henry V IV.iii.6).
The themes of these three plays were most likely immediately approved of by the royal court upon viewing. Any person desiring to climb the social hierarchy must first stop and think about whether or not he will be violating a boundary that has been socially constructed for him. Society during Shakespeare’s time was not tolerant of people attempting to scale the social castle walls through illegitimate means. King Henry was a different case than Malvolio or Macbeth, both of whom broke the rules. Henry complied with the rules, seeking wise counsel and not proceeding without God’s approval. If Henry could not “with right and conscience take [his] claim” (Henry V I.ii.98), he wouldn’t have gone to war. He was not going to risk lives for a quest that was not within his royal limits. Malvolio didn’t bother to care about going out of his socially constructed box and neither did Macbeth.
This is Shakespeare’s point. Society has created a hierarchy for a reason, and it is within no person’s rights to try to break out of his mold, except for the King, who is the figurehead of England. Shakespeare doesn’t let Macbeth or Malvolio off the hook as Malvolio is completely humiliated and overwhelmed with and humorously vows to revenge and Macbeth is ultimately killed, defamed, and stripped of his crown after death. Breaking the social hierarchy is placed in a bad light and discouraged for anyone as unpleasant things may happen in consequence.