The character of Macbeth throughout the play
“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, which contain witchcraft, treason, and bloody murder. In the following essay, I will be writing about the way I feel towards the character of Macbeth throughout the play and the way in which he changes. Does Shakespeare present him in such a way that we can to some extent understand, even feel for this “disloyal, self seeking murderer” or can we relate to Malcolm’s description of him as “the dead butcher?” Our views on Macbeth change throughout the play because Shakespeare portrays him in many different ways.
At the beginning of the play he is seen as a brave soldier, at the top of his profession and rewarded by King Duncan of Scotland. He is spoken about as “Brave Macbeth” and “Worthy gentlemen” after his heroism in battle, only to later become cruel and unjust. He had defeated the Norwegians and on his way home meets three witches. The audience in Shakespeare’s time believed in witches and their sinister side, leaving the audience sceptical when Macbeth communicates with them, leading us to believe he is connected with evil.
The witches then give Macbeth three predictions: “All hail Macbeth! Hail to the thane of Glamis! All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee thane of Cawdor! All hail Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter.”
Macbeth is already thane of Glamis but chooses not to believe the witches because he feels that the Thane of Cawdor is alive. Soon after some messengers come and deliver, the news to Macbeth that he has been granted the thaneship of due to a treasonous crime committed on the Thane of Cawdor’s behalf. Macbeth starts to believe that a third prediction is likely to occur, given that the first two appear to have. “Two truths are told, as the happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial theme.” Macbeth’s fatal flaw of ambition then overcomes him and he begins to contemplate regicide which, he feels is the only way of becoming King, “My thought, whose murder is yet but fantastical.”
The attitude of the audience changes completely, however, the next time Macbeth meets up with the witches. Sympathy cannot be felt for Macbeth, as it is he who goes to the witches, not the contrary. At this stage, we cannot help but speculate concerning Macbeth’s apparent involvement with the evil forces, suggesting that he may have some evil present in him.
One of the witches confirms this when admitting, “Something wicked this way comes.” Macbeth turns to the witches because of his insecurity. He is the subject of growing suspicion among many people, despite obtaining his ambition of kingship. On the contrary, he was enlightened when first meeting the witches that Banquo’s sons would be kings. This implies that children will be unable to follow Macbeth in the line of royalty and intrinsically apprehends Macbeth. In an attempt to find out how to keep his throne, Macbeth confronts the witches about his future.
He is consequently granted three apparitions: “Beware Macduff,” “None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” Moreover, “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.” These apparitions are all ambiguous, deliberately intended to mystify Macbeth and the audience. Why does Macbeth have to be cautious of Macduff? If no born son of a woman can harm Macbeth then who can? It is possible for a wood to move of its own accord so did Macbeth have nothing to fear?
The ambiguousness of these apparitions and the manner in which Macbeth interprets them makes Macbeth over confident with regards to his safety because we later learn in the play that Macduff was not born of woman but of caesarean. We also learn that Macduff and Malcolm’s army cut down Birnam Wood and uses it as camouflage to get closer to Macbeth’s fortress without him seeing them.
With the information they feed him with, the witches offer a hand of encouragement for Macbeth’s decisions (e.g. he kills Banquo because the witches say that Banquo’s sons will be kings) but are never responsible for what Macbeth does. They simply put ideas into his head, acting as a catalyst for his actions. The main influence on Macbeth, however, is his wife, Lady Macbeth, portrayed as a manipulative and domineering power.
When Lady Macbeth hears about the predictions of the witches she immediately ponders murdering king Duncan. She realises, however, that although Macbeth is very ambitious, “Thou art not without ambition,” he is too compassionate to carry out the murder,” I fear thy nature, is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness.” Lady Macbeth therefor formulates a plan.
Lady Macbeth honours and loves her husband very much. She also conscious of her husbands reluctance to be thought of as a coward and when refusing to go ahead with murdering the king “We will proceed no further in this business,” uses the weakness to insult his manliness “Was the hope drunk Wherein you dressed yourself?”
She therefor manipulates him into agreeing to commit the regicide. At this point in the play, we feel some compassion towards Macbeth, as he is weak in resisting his wife’s ever growing influence. We become wary of the responsibility Lady Macbeth has on her husband’s change of heart. Interesting to note, also, that at Shakespears time the husband would have been the dominant partner, and therefor the audience would have been cynical towards Lady Macbeth for her scheming ways and rare ability of being authoritative over her husband.
In the scene just before Macbeth goes to kill Duncan he initially decides himself in his soliloquy to murder Duncan, despite the profound reasons not to. Macbeth appreciates Duncan’s fine qualities- his humility and his integrity in carrying out to perfection the tasks of kingship and knows that to destroy such virtue would be a crime against heaven. This leaves the audience divided in their opinions concerning Lady Macbeth’s influence on the plot. At this stage, I remain indefinite as to whether Macbeth really is the ruthless party in the murder or whether his wife’s influence is the decisive passage.
Lady Macbeth’s moral conscience is not as evident as her husbands. She is now the stronger of the two, and Macbeth cannot stand up to her accusations that he is a coward, lacking in manliness, and a traitor to his word. He yields to her, and in order to prove himself a man in his eyes submits to a woman’s guidance. Despite this, the couple has an affectionate relationship “My dearest Love.” Eventually the only loyalty that Lady Macbeth and have is their loyalty for each other. Disloyalty is shown when Macbeth murders the king just to make sure he keeps the throne. Unreasonable ambition takes over, with the consequence of loosing the things that were once important to the both of them.
Lady Macbeth not only influences Macbeth on the murder of King Duncan but Macbeth also advances in killing his dearest friend Banquo and the wife and children of Macduff. When hearing of these unruly murders and realising that her husband is behind them she is driven insane by the sheer grotesqueness of them, “The thane of Fire had a wife; where is she now?” before her eventual act of suicide.
Although not greatly evident King Duncan himself is a significant influence on Macbeth. Duncan is a very bad judge of character. He trusted the Thane of Cawdor “He was a gentleman on whom I built absolute trust.” However, The Thane of Cawdor turned out to be a traitorous villain. Duncan then gives Macbeth the thaneship of Cawdor. This is Dramatic irony as he is giving Macbeth the title of a traitor. This is also the wrong step because it raises Macbeth above all the other lords. Duncan praises Macbeth for his bravery at war, consequently making the other lords envious of Macbeth, and raising Macbeth’s ego.
These three influences, the witches, Lady Macbeth and Duncan contribute significantly to Macbeth’s change in character throughout the play. The story unfolds as follows: The first time we hear about Macbeth is when the witches mention his name. This would make the audience feel uneasy and they would wonder why Macbeth is associated with evil. Their minds are then put at rest when the captain refers to him as “Brave Macbeth”. Macbeth is portrayed as a hero. He defeats the Norwegians and is rewarded with the thaneship of Cawdor so the audience admires him. They think that he is a loyal and worthy subject to the king.
Then the witches meet with Macbeth; the audience would begin to have doubts about his loyalty when he starts contemplating about murdering the king. Macbeth then admits ” If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir.” This emphasises that he is still unsure about having to murder King Duncan and at this point feels that if the witches have predicted it then fate will make him king without him having to do anything.
King Duncan then names his son Malcolm as heir with Macbeth realising that he cannot become king unless he does something about it, “That is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’er-leap.” Macbeth thinks a great deal about murdering the king and reasons for it and in his soliloquies the audience would see his thoughts and begin to feel sorry for him because his ambition is so strong that it is having a psychological effect on him. Nevertheless, in the end, despite the many doubts ultimately decides himself to kill Duncan. The audience can no longer feel sympathy for his actions because the decision to kill the king is his own; they would feel horror and dissatisfaction because of what he has done. During the time that Shakespeare was alive and Macbeth was first shown on stage people thought that regicide was a horrific crime and he who commits it, was eternally damned to hell.
After Macbeth kills Duncan, he meets with Lady Macbeth. This scene (act 2 scene 2) is the play’s most tense and dramatic. At the beginning, we see Lady Macbeth by herself in an agitated state. Every small noise unsettles her “Hark!” When Macbeth intrudes the pace changes, with the distinct exchange of questions and answers between them. This emphasises their state of nerves. We get an insight into Lady Macbeth’s character and the part she has played in the murder and also a little hint of weakness on her behalf when discovering that she went to kill Duncan but couldn’t because he reminded her of her father, “Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.”
We hear how Macbeth’s preoccupation with not being able to pronounce “amen” after hearing the prayer demonstrates his state of mind – his guilt and his awareness that he has sold out to evil and the powers of darkness.
Because Macbeth is so tense he forgets to leave the daggers at the murder scene and when Lady Macbeth tells him to take them back he says, ” I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on’t again I dare not.” Therefore, Lady Macbeth takes them back. When she goes to return the daggers Macbeth has a short soliloquy. This gives us an insight into his state of mind. He is full of guilt, ” will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hands?” This means that he cannot rid of the guilt. As a knocking is heard on the castle gates, Lady Macbeth returns but her husband is already regretting what he has done saying, “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thy couldst!”
Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain then flee the country for fear that their turn to be murdered will come so Macbeth becomes king. Despite having this title he is still insecure, with the prediction from the witches of Banquo’s sons becoming king, Macbeth decides that he has to prevent this fate and therefor hires murderers without Lady Macbeth’s knowledge to kill Banquo. This shows the audience how their relationship is breaking up. We are shocked at Macbeth’s decision to kill Banquo because he was Banquo’s best friend.
After Banquo is murdered Macbeth hallucinates, he sees the ghost of Banquo covered in blood sitting in his chair at a banquet. All Macbeth’s lords are present but they cannot see the ghost, Lady Macbeth tries to relax him when saying, “you look on but a stool”. She tells him that what he is seeing is merely an illusion like “the air – drawn dagger” which led him to Duncan. This indicates that after the murders Macbeth has a guilty, unquiet mind. He fears every one and in front of all the lords, he proclaims himself unstable.
To the audience it appears as if Macbeth is turning insane and they sympathise with him because he has lost every thing dear to him: his best friend, his absolute trust and loyalty to his wife and the security of lots of friends who support him. Because of this insecurity, Macbeth pays the witches a visit with them showing him the three apparitions. With theses apparitions Macbeth is re-assured, his interpretation of them leads him to think that he cannot be harmed ” Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?”
Macbeth then finds out that Macduff has fled to England in an attempt to encourage Malcolm to bring an army to fight Macbeth, filling him with anger. This provokes him to get revenge on Macduff: ” The castles of Macduff I will surprise, Seize upon Fife, give to th’edge o’th’sword His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls That trace him in his line.”
This would horrify the audience; the modern day audience would be more horrified at this murder than the 17th century audience who would think that regicide is worse. The modern day audience would feel nothing but contempt for Macbeth’s act of slaughtering women and children. Macbeth’s character at this point is completely destroyed; No heroism, loyalty, or any good qualities that he once had are left. No sympathy can now be given from the audience’s point of view or any other character in the play. Lady Macbeth commits suicide because of guilty conscience regarding what she has done and what Macbeth has done.
Macbeth subsequently hears that Malcolm and Macduff are coming towards him with a great army, He is not too worried because of the witches apparitions and he says ” I will not be afraid of death and bane Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.” Macbeth receives the news of his wife’s death and through his soliloquy reveals that he cannot grieve for her, due to having his mind in the direction of battle “She should have died hereafter.” Only at this point does Macbeth realise that he has nothing left and all because of his over ambition.
A messenger later comes and announces that Birnam wood is moving. The armies of Malcolm and Macduff have cut down the forest and used it as camouflage. Macbeth begins to lose hope and feels like they have tied him “to a stake.” In addition, he “cannot fly.” Nevertheless, he decides that he will fight on ” I’ll fight, till from my bones my flesh be hacked.”
Macbeth then sets out to fight he kills a man and still holds on to the apparition from the witches that no one born of a woman shall harm him, “Swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn, Brandished by man that’s of a woman born.” Macduff confronts Macbeth and Macbeth is not very fearful of him because of the witches’ apparition. He says to Macduff: ” With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed: Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests, I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.”
Macduff then replies saying that he was not of woman born; he was from his mother’s womb ” Untimely ripped” Macbeth now knows that Macduff is going to kill him but he shows a last bit of courage and he fights on. The audience cannot feel admiration for Macbeth because of what he has done only sympathy because he has noting left, and he knows it. Macduff then kills Macbeth and hails Malcolm as King.
At the end of the play, we see Macbeth a respected hero turned into a vengeful villain through unreasonable ambition, with the influences of people around him. He commits regicide, murder, and vengeful slaughter. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth is horrified to think of what he has done. Shakespeare contrasts Macbeth and his wife in their attitudes of the murder. Lady Macbeth is bold and confident, because she does, not understand that the deed is morally wrong: he only concern is to destroy the evidence. Macbeth, on the other hand, awakens to a consciousness of guilt that will remain with him until his death. At times, Shakespeare encourages the audience to feel sympathy and understanding for Macbeth but at times all that the audience can feel for Macbeth is horror, anger, disgust, and contempt, although at the end of the play he shows tremendous character when facing certain death.
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