In Act I, scene vii of William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” as the title character debates whether to murder King Duncan, who is both his kinsman and his house guest, he says to his wife, “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.” Macbeth has just halted a rebellion, has been awarded a new title, and is enjoying honor among his peers when he expresses this sentiment about manhood. This is before he goes on a power-hungry rampage that will have him killing his king and ordering the murders of his best friend, his best friend’s son, and fellow thane Macduff’s wife and children.
The measure of a man may well be in his actions, not his words, but just as music critics will comment on the note not played, that measure should also extend to what a man does not do. In the South, where Protestant evangelical Christianity dominates, the idea of restraint might immediately bring to mind the choice not to drink, not to swear, or not to sleep around. But when Macbeth proclaims that “who dares do more is none,” he isn’t talking about personal choices about abstinence; he is talking about outward behaviors toward other people. He is speaking about how a man chooses to use the power he has, how he treats other people, and how he respects the faith and trust that others have placed in him.
Certainly, while men and women who seek power – by amassing wealth, obtaining political office, or cultivating influential friendships – do so for a variety of reasons, it is those who understand power as a responsibility, not as a privilege, who use it well. When Macbeth is defending his king, protecting his friends, and standing up to a traitor, he is celebrated as behaving honorably. Yet, when he crosses over to using his strength and position for personal gain, we see him fall, even as he rises. Once Macbeth resorts to treachery, he cannot stop, and even though he does gain the throne, he neither enjoys the prestige nor the comfort of the position. Macbeth becomes a living example of his own maxim.
Though Shakespeare wrote “The Tragedy of Macbeth” more than four hundred years ago, we still see these tragedies today. When a candidate seeks to represent his people then becomes a politician who gerrymanders voting districts, who employs manipulative rhetoric, and who votes against the interests of his own constituents, he is no better than Macbeth, who knows that what he has done is wrong but lashes out at everyone around him in an attempt to avert his own guilty conscience.
A man should not misuse his power nor violate the trust of those who hold him in high esteem. If he does, he has lost what won him honor in the first place. A man knows that power is honorable when it is used for beneficent ends, like maintaining peace and order and ensuring what is best for all people.