The idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is on old adage that many often repeat without considering its consequences. Lord Action, a British historian, wrote this grand statement summarizing the very essence of power over a hundred years ago, but its meaning is still relevant today (Domhoff).
It seems only natural that power corrupts. The idea that the gain of power is often accompanied by a lacks in morals is rational, but to suggest that direct authority or absolute power leads to absolute corruption or, in essence, evil is a mental leap many are unwilling to make.A vast amount of support, both historical and literary, exists in defense of this claim. Among great historical dictators such as Stalin and Mao Zedong, exists equally great literary figures such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Frank Miller’s Persian King Xerxes, all of which are prime examples of the evil brought about by power. Shakespeare initially portrays Macbeth as a righteous character, free from the draws of power or of evil. He is simply the Thane of Glamis; a heroic, battle weary soldier being honored for his courageous deeds (Bloom, 19).A wounded captain reports to King Duncan that “brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name- disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel…unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops” (1.
2. 16-22). Macbeth has defeated the traitor Thane of Cawdor. Reveling in this celebration King Duncan promises that “what he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won” (1. 2. 70). With these words, Duncan gives Macbeth his first taste of power, and with it, Macbeth begins to crumble under its corrosive powers.
King Xerxes, king of Persia in Frank Miller’s movie “300”, had a quicker ascension to power.Xerxes father, King Darius, died trying to conquer the various Hellenic city-states that comprised Greece at that time. As Xerxes ascends the throne, he assumes the various deity-like characteristics given to kings of this age. Xerxes becomes a virtual sun-god in his own mind, becoming a tyrant obsessed with the defeat of Greece. As the movie begins, Xerxes has already dominated the northern city-states of Greece with his massive Persian army. The cities of Athens and Sparta are the only two obstacles left to prevent Xerxes from conquering all of Greece.He sends emissaries to King Leonidas, informing the King that Athens and Sparta will be spared the wrath of the Persian army if Leonidas only bows to the supreme absolute power of Xerxes.
Macbeth’s eventual rise to power is symbolized through his interactions with the three Weird Sisters (Bloom, 57). The sisters plant the idea of becoming king in Macbeth’s mind, calling out to him “All hail Macbeth, that shall be king hereafter” (1. 3. 50). Given the honor of Thane of Cawdor, the corruption of power becomes too great for Macbeth.Guided by his wife’s conniving desires, Macbeth eventually kills Duncan and blames the murder on Duncan’s two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain. Macbeth seems to have a fair claim to the Scottish throne, but, as the Sisters said, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.
1. 11). Macbeth has used purely evil connivances to obtain his position unnaturally and unethically. Xerxes takes measures of equally disturbing magnitude in order to reach his goal of total domination over the Greek city-states.
Xerxes marches his massive army toward Sparta, but is met by a small Hellenic force lead by King Leonidas and 300 soldiers from the Spartan elite guard.This small force positions itself within the Thermopylae passage which is said to be only twelve meters wide. Xerxes offers Leonidas one final opportunity to surrender, then flings his army against the wall of Spartans, and although the Spartans stand against the flood for nearly three days, Xerxes never yields, never slows. His obsession and evil desires have left him with virtual tunnel vision.
Conquering the Greeks becomes his only option, and even as his men fall, he orders more to take their place. Macbeth takes on a similarly blinded vision when he ascends the Scottish throne.The three sisters tell Macbeth he will remain on the throne until “Great Birngam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against” (4. 1.
93-94). But King Macbeth, fearing the witches’ promises concerning his friend Banquo’s offspring, arranges to have both Banquo and Fleance murdered. Banquo’s murder becomes a breaking point for Macbeth.
Haunted by Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth alienates the various thanes of his kingdom. Fearing a uprising, Macbeth destroys the castle of Macduff, thane of Fife, who Macbeth suspects is leading the resistance.Finally, Macbeth barricades himself in his castle atop Dunsinane Hill. Holding firmly to the witches’ promises, Macbeth naively proclaims he fears not death. Macbeth has lost all sense of reality. His corruption is complete and no action, no evil, seems beyond him. Even the suicide of his own wife does not even faze him.
Xerxes performs similarly dishonorable actions in order to defeat the Spartan guard. Lead by a Greek traitor, Xerxes finds a secret passage allowing him to flank the Spartan fighters. Completely surrounded, the Spartans fight on, but are completely overcome by the advancing Persian army.It seems that Xerxes has finally succeeded in accomplishing his goal. Greece, in its entirety, is within his grasp, but the personal ramifications are obvious. Xerxes, through his treacherous victory, has lost the respect of his men. He is wounded and nearly killed by King Leonidas, and is no longer seen as a deity. Through his victory, his power as a leader has been severely compromised.
In the end, Macbeth and Xerxes meet similar fates. Macbeth’s castle is overrun by the armies of the thanes he abandoned, and Macbeth is eventually killed by Macduff, the thane whose castle Macbeth pillaged.Xerxes powerful Persian army, low on morale and lacking a true leader, is defeated by a united Greek army. Regardless of their literal downfalls, both men suffered similar psychological downfalls. Both became obsessed with obtaining power, both were willing to sacrifice personal ethics in order to obtain power, and both eventually bordered on madness because of this. As these characters demonstrate, evilness can be seen as a symptom of power.
Macbeth and Xerxes, blinded by their personal conquests, sacrificed their honor to obtain a fleeting moment of power.