Macbeth is a play defined by agency. The question at the heart of the narrative is, “who is really in control here?” It is a play defined not only by the human desire for control but also the human fear of responsibility that comes with that control. Macbeth is about the coexistence of two opposing fears: the fear that we lack control and the fear that we have too much. The fear that we have no power to change our destiny and the fear that if we lose, we can only blame our own failings. But the thing about this question is that the play makes it inherently unanswerable. We cannot know how much control the witches really have for sure. We cannot know how much control Macbeth or Lady Macbeth has for sure. The text simply doesn’t give us those answers. We can make our best guess, but any guess is substantiated only by circumstantial evidence that doesn’t actually prove anything for certain. As a result, what ends up mattering is not who has control in this story but who the characters believe has or may have control at any given moment. It is about how that sense of agency or lack thereof compels them to act. And it is this idea that creates a rather unlikely parallel between the Scottish play and Matt Reeves’s 2014 science fiction film: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Two characters are at the heart of this parallel, the man himself, Macbeth, and the ape villain, Koba.
While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far from a retelling of Macbeth, Koba and Macbeth do very similar things for potentially very similar reasons. But first, we need to know who Koba actually is.
Koba was a very experienced lab chimp poked and prodded by a world that saw him as inferior until the revolutionary Caesar freed him from captivity in the predecessor to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,Rise of the Planet of the Apes. After this occurred, the human race was all but wiped out by the same virus that gave these apes the higher thinking they needed to reach levels of human intelligence. As Dawn opens, Caesar has built a peaceful, almost idyllic community of apes built on fostering knowledge, morality, and togetherness. And Koba is his right hand man, almost a brother to the ape leader, actually saving him from a bear early on in the film.
Caesar trusts Koba implicitly. However, things get complicated when a colony of humans who were immune to the virus stumble across the ape civilization. They need to get to a dam that will help them restore power to their colony. Caesar, seeking peace between their communities, tries to help them much to the dismay of Koba. Koba would rather attack the humans while their weak and wipe them out once and for all. He’s only ever seen the evil humans can do. He cannot bring himself to trust a human, having only ever seen them as the enemy. And he believes that humans, once they have power, would attack them and push them back down to the level they used to be on.
The conflict between them grows until Koba denounces Caesar as caring more for the humans than his own sons, leading Caesar to brutally beat Koba, barely refraining from killing him.
After this display, Koba decides that his only course of action is to kill Caesar, take power, and destroy the humans himself despite the fact that coexistence and peace is just on the horizon.
Now, there are some very obvious parallels here as well as some that may not be so obvious. Let’s start with the obvious ones. The most obvious is the regicide. Koba kills (or attempts to kill) Caesar without anyone else knowing it was him. Caesar is the ape king and treats Koba like a brother just as Macbeth refers to himself as both Duncan’s “…kinsman and his subject…” (1.7.13). Koba is also Caesar’s most trusted friend. While Koba doesn’t receive any fancy title like Thane of Cawdor, he is the first person Caesar sends out to scout the human colony. It’s fair to say that Koba already has quite a bit of power, just not more than Caesar.
The other, less obvious, but still apparent parallel is the time at which the death occurred. That being, during a time of celebration just after a sense of triumph. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth carried out their plan just after Cawdor’s rebellion was squashed. It was a time of relative peace, Macbeth was already doing well for himself, killing the king only created unnecessary complications. Now, the less obvious parallels enter when we get into why these killings were carried out in spite of this.
The line in Macbeth that has struck me the hardest is Macbeth’s line in act one:
“Present fears are less than horrible imaginings” (1.3.139-140).
Put yourself in Macbeth’s shoes. You’ve just received this prophecy from witches, which as far as you can tell, is entirely reliable. There first prediction almost immediately came true after all. Now, the second prophecy hangs over you: you will be king. You have two options.
1. You can just let things play out and see if it comes true, the anxiety and uncertainty of what power you may one day wield swirling through you until it happens. Or perhaps, that day never comes at all, and you will only know for sure in the instance before you die.
2. You can take the king’s life now, take power, and have control.
The reality in front of you, a victorious day, a promotion in power, a world that seems entirely alright, is far less to you than the fear inside your soul. You either live life in constant terror of your own destiny or you take what little control you may have to make that choice yourself. You know that it’s wrong, but the thought compels you. You know of morality, saying to yourself,
“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man” (1.3.141-142)
You even claim to yourself that it’s okay for it to be out of your control,
“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3.146-147).
But the thought is already inside your head, you can take control, you can make it happen, you just have to choose to. The choice is yours. It doesn’t have to be the choice of destiny or witches, it can be yours. In fact, your own wife has told you she plans to help you kill the king, saying, “Oh, never / Shall sun that morrow see!” (1.6.58-59). She implores you to, “Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (1.6.63-64) You have a mental scapegoat. You may not know that’s what it is, but it’s there. You can see that it’s not your fault, but the fault of your wife. She emasculated you, she forced you, this act is not your responsibility, is it?
But you know, deep down, that this is your choice. No one is forcing you to do anything. This is what you want. Because in the midst of uncertainty, the simple fact is,
And trying to combine these incongruent realities is the only way to make you feel powerful, to make you feel in control while distancing yourself from the responsibility of the act. But you’ll never be able to escape the consequences of your actions. You aren’t a slave to witches or destiny or your own wife. You’re a slave to fear. And it will destroy you.
And now, imagine that you’re Koba.
Everything’s fine. You’re right hand to the king, a man who treats you as a brother, the community is thriving, everything is great. But then, those who you can only associate with evil arrive at your doorstep, asking for help. You have two options.
1. You can let this all play out naturally, let your king take care of it. You can sit back and see if things go the way you expect or if maybe, your king isn’t as idealistic as you believed. But if you do this, if your king is wrong, by the time you realize it, you will have been too late.
2. You can take matters into your own hands. You can take control, spy on the humans without your king’s knowledge, find out that they’re stockpiling weapons. Of course, you don’t know this is just a cautionary measure and they don’t actually intend to attack you, so you take this news to your king who isn’t even willing to hear you out, in fact he’s moved on with helping the enemy without your knowledge.
The reality in front of you, a thriving community, a seeming peace between you and your former enemy, a world that seems entirely alright, is far less to you than the fear inside your soul. You know this is your brother, the one who freed you from captivity in the first place, the one who gave you the position of power you currently hold, you know that he probably wouldn’t willfully hurt you, but you don’t know that for sure. The king isn’t listening to you, it’s not your fault what happens next. He forced your hand by choosing not to listen to you. This act is not your responsibility, is it? This is just what you have to do to stop the horrible future it seems like only you can sense. But you know, deep down, that this is your choice. No one is forcing you to do anything. This is what you want. Because in the midst of uncertainty, the simple fact is
You need to feel in control again before control is taken away completely. You aren’t a slave to humans or the failures of your leaders. You’re a slave to fear. And it will destroy you.
There are obvious holes in this comparison. I mean, it’s not like in Macbeth, it’s revealed that Macbeth actually failed to kill Duncan and then Duncan comes back to fight Macbeth on the top of an unfinished skyscraper. But the point of the matter is that at their foundations, both of these stories are about the power of fear, the fear that we may lose control of the world around us. Both of these stories, these villains, represent an unwillingness to allow the natural flow to move forward, because the end of that flow may not be where they wish it to be. The truth is that for many of us, present fears are not less than horrible imaginings. The fear that we may lose control is far greater than any act we may have to take to regain it. And if we let it consume us, it will destroy us. The way that these two stories end are very similar. The usurper reveals their true fear by letting the bodies pile up (Macbeth killing several of those who may be a threat to him and Koba killing anyone who defies him while also willfully disregarding the lives of other apes in battle) and they are destroyed for it. The irony is that present fears led us to horrible imaginings and horrible imaginings were the very thing that led us back to present fears. Would Macbeth have become king if he let things flow naturally? Were the witches really in control? Would the humans have eventually betrayed the apes’ trust and destroyed their burgeoning civilization?
The answers to those questions are irrelevant. What matters is what we do because of what we fear the answer might be.