Macbeth-Shakespeare on high conflict personalities


Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight?
Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which now I draw.
Thou marshal’st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. (2.1.44-57)

The plays of Shakespeare are performed frequently as they speak so loudly of issues relevant to us today. Melbourne Theatre Company are currently presenting perhaps his most famous play “Macbeth”. This resonates on many levels particularly around the destructive and disastrous consequences that can flow from ambition and power. Macbeth and his lady are complex and fascinating characters that have much to offer those interested in human nature and relationships.

The story commences upon the aftermath of a bloody battle in 11th century Scotland. Macbeth and his colleague Banquo come across a group of mystics who talk to them of the future and their destiny-for Macbeth to become Thane of Cordor and then King, and for Banquo to produce kings. As the prophesies start to become true, Macbeth begins to imagine that this is his destiny. He conveys this thoughts to his wife, who also dreams of what this might mean for them. Together they plan to make this a reality, and this begins their journey to madness and death.

Consumed by ambition and drunk by power, Macbeth embarks on a ruthless campaign to kill the king and take the throne for himself. He then proceed to murder anyone who gets in his way, or who could prevent his power from growing, even when inconsistent with the prophesy that propelled him down this path in the first place!

The price of Macbeth’s ambition is the destruction of his family-his murder, his wife’s suicide and the unity of the rest of Scotland and England against him. The seed planted by the mystics poisons and overwhelms him, destroying him from the inside out. An illustration of the power of the psyche to destroy a human being, to start them down a path that prevents the ability to return or recover, and propels them headlong to their annihilation.

Does Macbeth have a choice in the path that he travels? He is given a taste of a possible destiny, and does not seem to question this at all, but rather to accept this as inevitable, and to rush in this direction. Why does this overcome any sense of responsibility to his king, colleagues, family or friends? Why does he throw away so easily any sense of duty, morality, or responsibility as leader? Why is he obsessed with the advantage he sees in the here and now, and so blind to what this will mean for his future and that of those who should be dear to him? How is he able to ignore the likely consequences of such deceit, violence, and betrayal?

Yet this story resonates around us in this day and age. We cannot ignore the stories in the media of leaders around the world who make decisions similar to those of Macbeth. We hear of the violence of terrorism, the genocide of ethnic minorities, the persecution of religious groups, the restriction of personal rights for communities that may not be mainstream, the murder and killing of those who are seen as political rivals or threats. The power of rhetoric and the rhetoric of power with “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

Closer to home, those working with families will see some of the characteristics of Macbeth in those we work with in a context of high conflict. It is clear that Macbeth is not driven by logic or self-awareness. Perhaps his motivation is unconscious defensiveness driven by the need for self-protection. It is likely that his bizarre thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior may have been present all of his life and are not seen by him as unusual or extreme. He may believe that if he does not take advantage of these opportunities, someone else will do so, and in that case he may be in danger from those around him and in authority.

As described by Bill Eddy, he may have a genetic tendency towards excessive fears and consequential behavior, and be guilty of a mistaken assessment of danger. This would impact on his sense of security and survival, resulting and reinforcing his unacceptable behavior, and the need to target others with blame. He could be a narcissistic personality, with an unconscious and extreme fear of being inferior or helpless which drives extreme efforts to be seen as superior and to insult and demean others. He could be an antisocial personality with an unconscious and extreme fear of being dominated by others, which drives his efforts to dominate, manipulate, deceive and harm others. Perhaps he would be a paranoid personality with an unconscious and extreme fear of being betrayed by those close to him, which drives him to assume plots and conspiracies, unwarranted grudges and attack others first to protect himself.

If you accept that this may be Macbeth’s motivation, then there are some strategies that may have been successful in assisting him, altering his behavior, and turning him down a different path, if he was to seek help. The key is to show empathy and concern for him and to try to help him accomplish the goal that was underlying his behavior. My suspicion is that he is a mixture of narcissistic, antisocial and paranoid personality traits. This would require a clear explanation of the rules or reasons why his behavior needs to stop, and what the consequences would be if it continues. The focus would be on reducing the emotional threats he feels , and in matter-of-factly setting limits on his behavior. It would be important to find things you can respect about him, avoid any sense of dominating him, and to focus on the ground-rules set for your discussion and why you have to follow them.

If you have come across others in your work who display these traits and have found strategies that are useful in moderating their behavior, I would be very grateful to be able to discuss these with you. Please contact Creative Family Law Solutions to start a conversation.

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