The Theory of Self-hood in Macbeth

The Theory of Self-hood in Macbeth

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Assignment:
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we find a man and woman who suffer an extraordinary crisis of self-hood. In this essay you are being asked to thoroughly analyze this crisis, in order to develop a theory of self-hood in Macbeth. You may find it helpful to draw contrasts to moments in The Odyssey and The Inferno, but you will need to develop your argument with at least three different significant examples from at least three different Acts (not Scenes!) in the play. You can certainly use more examples, but you should focus on quality of analysis rather than quantity of quotes. You can focus on Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, or you can focus on both of them in relation to each other. You should consider moments in the text where you see characters engaging in thought, decision-making, action, justification, and self-reflection. You may also want to take into account how gender functions in the way characters understand self-hood/humanity. You should be organized to support a clearly articulated claim posited in the introduction of the paper. You can begin the writing process with a hypothesis, but you should ultimately allow your final claim/thesis to emerge from your analysis of the text, instead of being super-imposed upon the text by you.

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Thoroughly read and respond to the following prompt:

What does it mean to be a human? How do we define the “self”? Are some humans “more human” than others, having more complete “selves”? These are questions that have been of concern to philosophers for centuries, perhaps since the dawn of philosophy itself. However, understandings of, and assumptions about, the nature of the self and the human also can be found underlying many great works of poetry and drama. While not formulated as philosophical theories, a close reading of a literary text can expose not only static ideas of self-hood, but also the complex, paradoxical experiences, even crises, of self-hood that drive philosophers to keep asking these questions over and over, never remaining entirely satisfied with the answers reached by those who came before.

Perhaps the most famous definition of the self was that formulated by the French philosopher René Descartes in 1637: “Je pense, donc je suis.” “I think therefore I am.” This sentence defines the self as the “res cognitans,” the “thinking thing,” and therefore aligns self-hood with the activity of the intellect or mind. This definition has been extremely influential in the history of Western philosophy since Descartes, such that even now the most common way that we tend to distinguish humans from other types of biological organisms is through their acquisition of self-consciousness.

This is by no means a universally accepted definition, however, and it also is a relatively modern one. In “ ‘Res Agens’: Towards an Ontology of the Homeric Self” (2007), Damian Stocking develops a theory of the Homeric self through a close reading of The Illiad and The Odyssey, arguing that for characters in these two epic poems, self-hood is defined certainly not by intellectual activity, and also not simply by the “physical stuffs of the body” (60), but as “res agens,” the “acting thing.” Stocking carefully qualifies this definition by explaining that this is not action for the sake of action, but rather action relative to other things, and that therefore the self is identified with Greek words such as “biê, is, menos,” and “sthenos,” which mean something like “force” and “power,” and therefore refer to the ability to move or act upon other things. Therefore, for these characters, “[t]o be a force, a biê, is to be capable of effecting certain differences in the surrounding ‘field’ of the world, of making it proceed in a way other than it would have done in the absence of that force” (65). This is not to suggest that intellectual prowess is not valued by the characters of the Homeric epics, but rather that it is valued insofar as it leads to actions that effect change. The idea that pure contemplation is the highest pursuit of the human is something that, as Stocking demonstrates, comes later with Aristotle.

From this definition it becomes much easier for us to understand why death is such a serious problem for the characters of The Odyssey, because death results in the “lusis,” the unraveling or “dissolution” of the force (biê ) through which the body can act on things of the world, leaving behind only the corpse on earth, and the shade in Hades. It also helps us see why Odysseus perceives the Greeks as so far superior to the Kyclopes, who through their failure to cultivate the land on their island, and establish laws and assemblies, fail to make significant changes in the natural and cultural topography. Furthermore, it shows us why human female characters (unlike goddesses and nymphs) are consigned to secondary roles in the text, as, given their smaller physical stature and their vulnerability during pregnancy, they could not be conceived of as effectual to the same degree as males (of course one might suggest that giving birth to a child creates a far more significant impact on the world than cultivating crops or winning battles, though in this case the effectuality would still be vicarious as it would be ultimately the actions of the child, not the mother, that would win kleos). Finally, it helps us to see why kleos, “repute in song and talk among men” (76), becomes a central pursuit of the characters, for it is (a) evidence that one’s actions have indeed been effectual, and (b), as Stocking suggests, a way to generate a certain degree of force or power “at a distance,” i.e. from beyond the grave.

Of course, when Odysseus meets the shade of Achilles in Hades, we see that the story is not so simple, because Achilles tells Odysseus “Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than lord it over all the exhausted dead” (XI.578-81). In other words, though Odysseus continues throughout the epic to win kleos for himself even at the expense of the lives of his crewmembers and the potential destruction of Ithaka (only prevented by the miraculous appearance of Athena at the last minute), his efforts have already been undermined by Achilles, who has learned that even the simplest, most ineffectual life is better than death.

We can contrast this Homeric conception of self to the self in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which we can provisionally define as that which exists in relation to God and God’s creation, or that which, being loved by God, loves God and God’s creation in return. Therefore in the extent to which this love, which is the substance of the person, becomes disordered (the person loves one of God’s creations more than God, for example the lustful, the gluttonous, etc) or decreases and is replaced by selfishness (through violence and/or fraud), the self-hood/humanity of the person (love) diminishes, leaving only his or her evil actions. Thus we find the souls in the Inferno defined entirely by their actions, continuing to cling to them (so that their punishments physically mimic the sin they committed) and often begging Dante for some amount of earthly fame (kleos) because this is the only shade of humanity left to them.

While it might seem that this conception of self-hood is entirely opposed to the Greek one discussed above, in reality it is not quite so simple. In a sense, the human is still defined by action or movement, but now this is a specific kind of action – love – which is not the exerting of one’s own force on the other person or on the world, but rather the giving of oneself on behalf of the other (God, and by extension, neighbor). And once again, as in The Odyssey (remember cunning Odysseus?), intelligence is highly valued, but only insofar as it leads one to love, and thus the use of intelligence to cause harm is the most serious offense in the Inferno. Therefore, from the perspective of the Homeric self, the self of the Divine Comedy is a highly paradoxical.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we find a man and woman who suffer an extraordinary crisis of self-hood. In this essay, you are being asked to thoroughly analyze this crisis, in order to develop a theory of self-hood in Macbeth. You may find it helpful to draw contrasts to moments in The Odyssey and The Inferno, but you will need to develop your argument with at least three different significant examples from at least three different Acts (not Scenes!) in the play. You can certainly use more examples, but you should focus on quality of analysis rather than quantity of quotes. You can focus on Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, or you can focus on both of them in relation to each other. You should consider moments in the text where you see characters engaging in thought, decision-making, action, justification, and self-reflection. You may also want to take into account how gender functions in the way characters understand self-hood/humanity. It goes without saying that the final draft of your essay should be organized to support a clearly articulated claim posited in the introduction of the paper. You can begin the writing process with a hypothesis, but you should ultimately allow your final claim/thesis to emerge from your analysis of the text, instead of being super-imposed upon the text by you.

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