Krystal has excellent taste in music, literature, film and television and she is an absolute joy to talk to on any and all of those subjects.
This year, she wrote a fascinating essay for her AP Literature class comparing Shakespeare's "Macbeth" with AMC's excellent series "Breaking Bad" and she has agreed to allow me to share it with you right here in "Puente's Reading Room."
1 March 2012
“Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
After receiving a compelling prophecy, an otherwise noble man is propelled into corruption by his ambition to achieve his goals. He descends further and further into a moral darkness as his new found power takes control of every aspect of life. This is a well known tale; the tragedy of Macbeth. However, the same description can be applied to another story; Breaking Bad. Though there are some discrepancies among their specific details, overall they are strikingly similar. In fact, the themes, character flaws, and motifs of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are omnipotent throughout AMC’s Breaking Bad.
The tragedy of Macbeth is based upon greed, corruption, and the lust for power. The protagonist is tempted to commit evil deeds by a prophecy, and with the help of his wife he attempts to clear his path to royalty. He becomes more and more corrupted by his power until it eventually leads to his downfall. Macbeth is a well known piece of classic literature which influences and inspires many modern works including literature, film, and television.
Breaking Bad is a television drama which revolves around fear, courage, and the corruption of the human soul. When Walter White is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he turns to drastic measures in order to provide for his family. He begins manufacturing methamphetamines for quick cash. As he achieves his financial goals, he is lured into darkness by a newfound power that is completely unknown to him. His motives and ideas slowly become uncharacteristic of his former self as he travels further on his moral journey.
Just as Macbeth is stirred to action by a prophecy, Walter is set into motion by his cancer diagnosis. In an article in the New York Times, Segal writes “With the death penalty of his diagnosis looming, Walt wakes from the slumber of an unfulfilling life, evolving from feckless drudge to reluctant part-time criminal, then gradually to something worse.” Without this prophecy, the idea of turning to crime must have seemed preposterous and farfetched to both of these men. However, once the idea was planted, it grew quickly and consumed their lives. Eventually it also began affecting those emotionally close to them.
The role of Walter’s former student and counterpart Jesse is, in many ways, similar to the role of Lady Macbeth. Both she and Jesse do not at first think that the protagonist is capable of the deed. Lady Macbeth states that her husband’s nature is “Too full o’the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way (33). She knows he isn’t the type to commit sin, especially against one who does not deserve it in the slightest. Similarly, when Jesse hears of Walter’s plan, he is disbelieving, saying “All the sudden…at age fifty you’re going to break bad (“Pilot”)?”
Another similarity between these two secondary characters surfaces when the first murder is committed. As Macbeth struggles with his conscience, Lady Macbeth chastises him and criticizes his manhood, disgusted by his indecisiveness. She insults him, saying “When you durst do it, then you were a man;…(43).” Jesse is also irked when Walter is reluctant to go through with the act, saying “I did my part, now you do yours (…and the Bag’s in the River).”
As well as further goading the protagonist into action, both Jesse and Lady Macbeth do the “dirty work” of the first murder. Lady Macbeth smears Duncan’s sleeping guards with his blood and frames them for his murder, as Macbeth himself is too shaken. In Breaking Bad, Jesse is given the job of disposing of the body. The secondary characters both sustain mental damage from their role in these crimes. They are also affected by the protagonist’s other decisions.
Blood is always present and playing a role in Macbeth, just as methamphetamines are in Breaking Bad. Macbeth’s decision to shed blood is very similar to Walters’s decision to start cooking methamphetamines. Their decisions regarding these subjects lead them into danger and cause them to become entangled in a web of lies. In addition, with both meth and blood the secondary character is eventually more emotionally and physically affected than the main character.
Macbeth’s first soliloquy in Act Two is strikingly similar to the scene preceding Walter’s first deliberate murder. Both characters wrestle with their morals, arguing with themselves. Walter goes as far as to make a pros and cons list about the murder. The idea of committing such a heinous deed warps logic in their minds, foreshadowing the upcoming paranoia. Macbeth sees an imaginary dagger, and it seems to come as a horrifying and fascinating revelation. Walter has a similar experience after he decides to let his would be victim go free. As he prepares to do so, he realizes that the man has been hiding a weapon from him all along and plans to kill him. This is devastating news, yet it makes Walter see that murder is now his only option. He is prevented from thinking it over more by discovering that his own life is at risk. In Macbeth’s case, the ringing of the bell interrupts his thought process and sets him into action. This marks the beginning of a fragile mental state for both men.
The characters in Macbeth are plagued by hallucinations, similar to the way Breaking Bad’s characters are plagued by constant paranoia. As more atrocities are committed, guilt sets in and greatly affects the mental health of the characters. Macbeth is haunted by the “ghost” of Banquo, when in reality it is only a mental manifestation of his blood stained conscience. This warped conscience manifests itself with Walter as he begins to become extremely paranoid. He sees a threat at every turn, convincing himself that every word is a threat and each coincidence, no matter how miniscule, is a sign of something gone horribly wrong.
This paranoia involves not only the protagonists, but those close to them and involved. Lady Macbeth and Jesse are plagued by guilty hallucinations due to their role in the crimes committed. Lady Macbeth is unable to rid herself of the blood from Duncan’s murder, and she suffers from insomnia and hysterics. As she desperately tries to wash the imaginary blood from her hands, she remarks “Out, damned spot! Out, I say (155)!” Correspondingly, Jesse is unable to break free of the grip of methamphetamines, and under the influence his guilt is magnified until he loses grip with reality altogether. At one point he imagines two large men wielding weapons are walking towards his door to deliver his retribution, when in reality it is only tracting missionaries.
Both Jesse and Lady Macbeth change drastically as the story progresses and the guilt worsens. In the beginning, they think nothing of the “evil deeds” and are more than willing to assist actively. However, as time passes, they realize the significance of their sins against humanity. As guilt begins to affect their mental and physical health, the protagonist simultaneously is gaining power and ego. Walter loses his compassion for Jesse and is lost in his own ventures. Macbeth is so engrossed in his own problems that he doesn’t even spare a moment to grieve when his wife commits suicide. “She should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word (171).”
As the main characters in both stories continue in their downward spiral, their initial morals all but disappear. Their original goals are swept away in the lust for power and status. Though in the beginning the two men were meek and seemingly spineless, the passing of time and the atrocities they have committed have hardened their hearts.
As Birnam wood seems to march towards Dunsinane, Macbeth says “I have almost forgotten the taste of fears. The time has been, my senses would have cooled to hear a night shriek, and my fell of hair would at dismal treatise rouse and stir as life were in’t. I have supped full with horrors. Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, cannot once start me (171).”
Walter starts out as a weak and frightened individual, and as he changes his actions his constitution changes as well. He explains to his brother; “I have spent my whole life scared. Frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen. Fifty years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning (“Better Call Saul”).” Much later in the story, after Walter’s wife shows concern for his safety, he angrily retorts; “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see?...I am not in danger, I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks (“Cornered”).” Walter seems insulted by his wife’s assumption. She doesn’t see the complete mental change he has gone through, though it seems apparent to him.
At one point, Walter has the opportunity to reform his ways and go back to his old life. He almost does this, yet his small taste of power has addicted him. He quickly reverts back to his old ways. When he notices some other men are planning to cook meth, he strides up to them without fear and menacingly warns “Stay out of my territory (“Over”).” Andrew Romano states in a newspaper article, “Walt started out a deeply sympathetic figure and then gradually morphed, over three seasons of escalating immorality, into an almost unrecognizable creep. In the beginning, he was cooking meth only so his family wouldn't be destitute when he died. Now you're not so sure.”
In both stories, the murders that may have seemed almost necessary in the beginning quickly become excessive. One slaughter leads to another, forming a trail of blood. Macbeth kills successor after successor until he is in line for king and feels he is unchallenged. Walter decides he must get rid of anyone whom he feels threatens him, his operation, or his family. These killings go from painful to casual. As time goes on the murders are presented as less and less dramatic. After the murder of Duncan in Macbeth, the subsequent murders are not nearly as described or mentally debated. Similarly, as more murders are committed in Breaking Bad, Walter ceases to show any hesitation or remorse for lost life. These men’s regards to morals go completely down the drain. They even go as far as to lose sympathy for children. Without second thought, Macbeth sends murderers to kill Macduff’s wife and children in their own home. Walter poisons and nearly kills a young child important to Jesse in order to manipulate Jesse into killing a man.
One major tool that both Walter White and Macbeth use is Justification. Macbeth tells the murderers that the assassination is for the best, and that Banquo is the cause of all their problems. “Know Banquo was your enemy. So is he mine…(85.)” Walter uses the same persuasion to get Jesse to help him kill Gus. “Who do you know who’s allowed children to be murdered? Gus (“End Times”).” Walter also justifies his actions by saying that it will save himself and his family. He tells Jesse that the murder of Gus is justified, saying “He had to go (“Face Off”).”
The changes in character in both Breaking Bad and Macbeth were due to conscious decisions. “Breaking Bad is not a situation in which the characters' morality is static or contradictory or colored by the time frame; instead, it suggests that morality is continually a personal choice. The difference between White in the middle of Season one and White in the debut of Season four is not the product of his era or his upbringing or his social environment. It's a product of his own consciousness. He changed himself. At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters.”(Grantland) Macbeth also made a choice to become an immoral man, as he knew with certainty that his actions were wrong. These men ignored their conscience and forced themselves into a life of darkness. As they progressed further, dark deeds became easier and conscience slowly faded away.
As conscience was pushed into the far regions of the mind, it was replaced by arrogance. Walter White and Macbeth each developed a mindset in which they considered themselves invincible. In Walter’s case, his ability to produce a high quality product convinces him that he will not be killed. This confidence leads him to make poor decisions that put his and Jessie’s lives in danger. “If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad, it’s that actions have consequences,” says Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator. In Macbeth, the protagonist is drunk with confidence after hearing prophecies that make it seem as though he can’t be killed. He consequently is ill-prepared for the attack on his castle. This of course leads to Macbeth’s defeat.
Though there are many similarities between Breaking Bad and Macbeth, there are also notable differences. The obvious differences are within the minor details. Looking beyond these minor details, several major differences are apparent. First, Walter’s motive seems far more benevolent than Macbeth’s in the beginning, and he makes a more dramatic transformation over the course of the story. In contrast, the reader never really sympathized with Macbeth’s ambition to be king, and had little knowledge of him other than the shallow information given through the words of other characters. Breaking Bad also has no allusion to the supernatural, and in Macbeth the supernatural is a major theme. Another element missing is the conclusion; Breaking Bad has another season yet to be aired, while Macbeth’s conclusion is well known. Even after considering these differences, the two stories continue to appear remarkably similar.
The themes, character flaws, and characteristics of Shakespeare’s Macbeth occur frequently throughout AMC’s Breaking Bad. Though these stories take place in different settings, follow different plots, and belong to different genres, they have much in common. One idea is made very clear. The lust for power, when presented in the right circumstances, can corrupt even the most noble of men.
“…And the Bag’s in the River” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York. (Feb 10, 2008). Television.
“Better Call Saul”
“Cornered” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York. (Aug 21, 2011). Television.
“End Times” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York. (Oct. 2, 2011). Television.
“Face Off” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York. (Oct 9, 2011). Television.
Klosterman, Chuck. “Bad Decisions” Grantland. n.p, 12 July, 2011. Web. 3 February 2012
“Over” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York. (May 10, 2009). Television.
“Pilot” Breaking Bad. AMC. New York. (Jan 20, 2008). Television
Romano, Andrew. “The most dangerous show on television.” Newsweek 158.1/2(2011):58-63.
Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Feb. 2012
Segal, David. “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad.” The New York Times. n.p, 6 July 2011. Web. 2
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” Macbeth and Related Readings. Ed. Unknown. Evanston:
McDougal Littell, 1997. 3-185. Print.
Watts, James D. Jr. “The couple that slays together…” Tulsa World (OK, 05 Sept. 2010:
Newspaper source plus. Web. 10 Feb 2012