Macbeth is a character of powerful contradictions. He is a man who, for the sake of his ambition, is willing to murder his king and his best friend. At the same time, he has a conscience that is so strong that just the thought of his crimes torments him. In fact, even before he commits his crimes the thought of them makes him miserable.
Is Macbeth a horrible monster or is he a sensitive man- a victim of witches and his own ambitions? Or is he both? If he is both, how can the two sides of his nature exist side by side?
To answer those questions, let’s first look at what he does. Then we will look at how he feels about what he does. In the play, of course, the two go together.
His actions are monstrous. If Macbeth were a criminal brought to trial, the list of the charges against him would be long:
1. He murders his king, who is also a relative. The crime is treasonous and sacrilegious, since every king is set on his throne by God. Macbeth’s guilt is even blacker because the King was his guest at the time of the murder. A host has responsibility to protect his guest.
2. He hires men to kill his best friend, Banquo. He wants the men to kill Banquo’s young son, Fleance, too, but Fleance escapes.
3. He sends men to kill Macduff’s wife and children.
4. Having taken the crown by murder, he keeps it by deception. He plants spies in all the nobles’ homes and spreads lies about Malcolm, who should rightfully inherit the throne.
5. More crimes are referred to but not specified. Macbeth rules by terror, since he does not deserve- or have- anybody’s loyalty. Describing Scotland under Macbeth’s rule, Macduff says, “Each new morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face…” (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 4-6).
So Macbeth does horrible things, but that is not the whole story. Macbeth is different from some of Shakespeare’s other villains like Iago (in Othello) and Richard III. The latter enjoy doing evil; they have renounced what we think of as normal ethics and morality. Macbeth’s feelings are more complicated. In the beginning of the play, at least, he appears to have a conscience that tells him what he’s doing is wrong. Or is he just afraid of the consequences of his actions?
He is never able to enjoy the crown he has taken. He experiences nothing but anguish. Is that simply because he is afraid of losing the crown, or is his conscience bothering him?
None of these questions is answered directly in the play. Each reader has to form his or her own opinion, based on the text.
Let’s look at how Macbeth feels about each of the crimes we listed before:
6. Killing Duncan horrifies Macbeth. Before the murder, he tries to tell Lady Macbeth that he will not go through with it. She has to goad him into killing the King. After committing the murder, Macbeth seems almost delirious. He says that “…all great Neptune’s ocean [will not] wash this blood / Clean from my hand” (Act II, Scene ii, lines 60-61).
7. When he murders Banquo, Macbeth is still in torment, but the cause of his anguish seems to have changed. He is afraid of Banquo, because Banquo knows about the witches and because the witches predicted that his descendents would be kings. Banquo’s death, he says, will put his mind at rest.
8. We are never told how Macbeth feels about the murder of Macduff’s wife and children. Their killing gains him nothing. He has good reason to fear Macduff, but slaughtering his enemy’s family is pointless.
Macbeth seems to order their murder for spite, out of a feeling of desperation. Despite the witches’ new prophesies, which appear to be reassuring, he is afraid of losing the crown. Since he cannot get at Macduff directly, he lets loose this senseless violence.
9. The spies Macbeth plants show how desperate and paranoid he is. He sees enemies- real or imagined- everywhere.
10. The other unspecified acts of violence serve no purpose, as far as we can see, beyond terrifying his subjects so much they won’t resist him. Macbeth is striking out at random, and his moral sense seems to have entirely disappeared. The brave hero we met in Act I, who at least seemed honorable, is completely twisted.
You can see how much his crimes have cost Macbeth. His reaction to Lady Macbeth’s death is a sign of complete despair- all feeling is dead in him. His famous speech upon hearing of her suicide- “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” (Act V, Scene v, lines 17-28)- is less an expression of grief than it is a speech about the utter meaninglessness of life.
You wonder how all this has happened. If he was so horrified by first the idea and then the fact of Duncan’s murder, why did he do it? And why commit the other crimes?
Apparently his ambition is stronger than his conscience. The witches tempt him with the idea of becoming king. Lady Macbeth helps him overcome his natural hesitation to commit murder. But Macbeth himself chooses between his honor and the crown- and between salvation in the next world and material gain in this one.
Once he has killed to get the crown, the other crimes seem inevitable. In order to keep what he has taken, Macbeth learns to lie and kill as a matter of course. His values become totally confused. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” to him now; he has lost track of the difference.
All that seems left in the end is his pride. You respect him when he fights to the death rather than be displayed as the monster he is. But some people think that if Macbeth had not been so proud he would not have wanted to be king to begin with, and that if he had been humbler he would have repented.
Another aspect of Macbeth is his active imagination. Considering Duncan’s murder, he can vividly picture all the possible consequences. His imagination pursues him throughout the play. He’s continually reliving his crimes and fantasizing about present and future dangers. Nothing Lady Macbeth can say will quiet his mind.
At times he seems crazy- or haunted.
Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air. After the murder, he hears voices. And later he sees Banquo’s ghost. You are never quite sure if these are hallucinations- the imaginings of a sick mind- or if they are apparitions, like the witches. You begin to wonder how real they are.
At the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth, unlike her husband, seems to have only one opinion about murder: if it helps her to get what she wants, she is in favor of it. For the first two acts of the play, some readers think she is the most interesting character. Their fascination is probably based on her total lack of scruples.
Lady Macbeth is a strong woman. She is a twisted example of the saying, “Behind every great man there’s a woman.” Once she sees that her husband’s ambition has been inflamed, she is willing to risk anything to help him get the crown.
She understands her husband very well:
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
(Act I, Scene v, lines 17-19)
In other words, she knows that Macbeth’s conscience will stand in the way of his ambition.
For the sake of their “prize,” she renounces all the soft, human parts of her own nature. In a play so full of supernatural events, we can take her literally if we want to when she calls upon “…spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts…” to “Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose…” (Act I, Scene v, lines 41-42 and 45-47).
It is as if she were tearing her heart out to make her husband king.
Lady Macbeth’s singleness of purpose seems to prove that she has been successful in emptying herself of human feeling. When Macbeth tries to back out of committing the murder, she treats him with contempt. She questions his manhood and shames him into doing it.
Look at how effortlessly she lies. When Duncan, whom she plans to kill, arrives at the castle, her welcoming speech drips with false graciousness. While Macbeth has horrifying visions, Lady Macbeth seems cool and literal minded. To her, Duncan’s blood is just something to be washed off her hands. Worrying over things you cannot alter is a waste of time, she says.
But Lady Macbeth is not as simple as she seems. By the end of the play she has killed herself to escape the horrible nightmares that torment her. Shakespeare seems to be saying that guilt and fear can be suppressed for a time, but they cannot be done away with entirely.
Some readers find Lady Macbeth a fascinating portrait of a horrible murderer. They see her actions as frighteningly amoral, and her madness and death as divine justice. Others see Lady Macbeth as a tragic figure. They are awed by her strength, her determination, and her resourcefulness. To them, the tragedy is that she wastes such qualities on evil deeds. And by the end, when her mind is rotten with madness, they can say she has struggled with her guilt every bit as much as her husband has with his.
We can learn a lot about Macbeth by looking at Banquo. Banquo is a man of integrity. He is brave in battle but cautious in his actions. It is valuable to look at how he and Macbeth react differently to similar circumstances.
At the beginning of the play, they are equals. Macbeth and Banquo are leading Duncan’s army- they fight side by side. They seem to be equally brave in combat.
Banquo and Macbeth meet the witches together, and Banquo’s response to the prophesies is wiser than Macbeth’s. He is skeptical from the beginning. When the witches first appear, he taunts them: “Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate.” (Act I, Scene iii, lines 61-62). After the prediction that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor comes true, Banquo is more cautious. He warns his friend not to be won over by small truths only to be betrayed in more important matters. He senses the women are evil, and he expects a trick.
Banquo has an honest and trusting nature. It never occurs to him that Macbeth may want to kill Duncan to make the prophesy come true. Later, even when he suspects that Macbeth killed the old King, Banquo does not suspect that he himself is in any danger.
It is interesting to note that Banquo does have some interest in the things the “weird sisters” promise him. He tells Macbeth that he dreamed about them. He also wonders if, since their prophesy for Macbeth came true, he should hope that his descendents will be kings.
But Banquo refuses to compromise his honor and his integrity to get the things he wants. He is willing to wait for the fullness of time to bring about whatever is coming. Also notice that Banquo, unlike Macbeth, does not hide the fact that he sometimes thinks about the three witches.
So it seems that Shakespeare formed Banquo’s character the way he did to show how a man of honor would respond to the kind of temptation that Macbeth gives in to. There is probably another reason why Banquo is portrayed as he is. historically, Banquo was an ancestor of King James I of England. Macbeth was first presented for James. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was Shakespeare’s source for the story, Banquo helped Macbeth murder the king. Many critics believe that Shakespeare changed Banquo’s role to please King James.
The three witches that Macbeth and Banquo meet are also called the “weird sisters.” In Old English wyrd meant “fate.” And it is part of their role in the play to act as the forces of fate.
But “fate” in what sense? Do they cause Macbeth’s actions? What powers do they have, and what are the limits of their powers? In other words, do they dictate what will happen?
They certainly know things that no mortal could know. Even a person who knew that the Thane of Cawdor was a traitor would be awfully shrewd to guess that Macbeth would be given his title. And who without supernatural powers could have known that Macbeth would only be defeated when Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane?
The witches have other supernatural powers. They can cause storms, and they appear and disappear at will.
But their powers are limited. Look at Act I, Scene iii. The First Witch has been insulted by a sailor’s wife. When the witch asked the woman for a chestnut, the woman says, “Aroint thee, witch!” In other words, “Get lost!” The witch doesn’t seem to be able to harm the woman directly. Instead, she sends a storm to disturb the sailor’s ship. Even at that, her powers are limited: “…his bark cannot be lost…”, the witch says.
These hags lead Macbeth on to destroy himself. Their predictions are temptations. They never lie, they never tell Macbeth he has to do anything, they just give the trick answers. In that sense they are agents of the devil, out for his soul; they trick him into damning himself.
But it is clear that the responsibility for the crimes is Macbeth’s. Nothing the witches did forced him to commit them. He was wrong to hear their words as an invitation to murder the King. Still, you wonder if Macbeth would have murdered anybody if he had not met the witches. And you can argue that either way.
Malcolm represents the rightful order that Macbeth disturbs. Duncan, who is a good and wise king, names his son the Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne.
Will Malcolm make a good king? Clearly, Shakespeare wants us to believe he will. Though Malcolm is young, he is already wise. He and his brother Donalbain are smart enough to get away from Macbeth’s castle as soon as possible after their father’s murder. After safely reaching England, Malcolm does not rashly try to reclaim the throne. Instead, he waits until the time is right.
In his scene with Macduff, Malcolm displays cleverness and verbal skill. He manipulates Macduff, testing his loyalty, but he does it only for the good of his people and his country.
In the final speech of the play, Malcolm demonstrates his fitness for kingship. Macbeth has been killed, and Malcolm is about to be crowned. Like his father, in Act I, Malcolm’s first concern is to reward those who have helped him. The speech is full of images of divine grace and natural order.
The King makes his final exit before the end of Act I, and he is murdered offstage early in Act II. Not having a lot of time to develop Duncan’s character, Shakespeare works in broad, clear strokes.
Duncan is “a most sainted king” (Act IV, Scene iii, line 109), as Macduff calls him. His murder is a crime that has no justification. Even Macbeth calls him “the gracious Duncan” (Act III, Scene i, line 66).
We know that Duncan is old- otherwise he would be in combat with his army. Owing to his age, he has to anxiously await word from the field.
His generosity is clearly demonstrated by the way he treats Macbeth. He rewards the noble Macbeth immediately after hearing about his bravery.
Duncan is also gracious to Lady Macbeth. Even though he is actually honoring Macbeth and his wife by spending the night at their castle, he behaves as if they were doing him a favor.
The person who best sums up Duncan’s nature is his murderer- Macbeth: “…this Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like angels…” (Act I, Scene vii, lines 16-19).
Macduff is Macbeth’s major adversary. Malcolm is the rightful king and leads the forces to overthrow the tyrant, but Macduff is a thorn in Macbeth’s side from the beginning. In the end, he kills Macbeth.
Until the murder of his wife and children, Macduff has not been hurt personally by Macbeth. He opposes Macbeth because he knows right from wrong. He never wants the crown for himself. His desire is to see the rightful king on the throne.
He refuses to play games. He will not attend Macbeth’s crowning or put in an appearance at the tyrant’s feast just to keep up appearances.
Macduff is not clever with words. He voices his disapproval of Macbeth not by statements but by his absence. Macduff’s simple honesty is revealed when he is tested by Malcolm in Act IV, Scene iii. In a play like Macbeth, in which many people and things are not what they appear to be, Macduff is like a breath of fresh air.
Maturity is another trait of Macduff’s. He takes the news of his wife and children’s murder like a blow squarely on the chin. By having the courage to feel his grief, he is able to convert his pain into a burning desire for righteous revenge.
The settings of Shakespeare’s plays generally come more from the dramatic needs of the story than from any literal sense of the place. Macbeth is no exception.
Most of the action takes place in Scotland. There are at least two reasons: 1. Shakespeare invented the plot of Macbeth by combining several stories out of Scottish history he found in Holinshed’s Chronicles; and 2. James I, who was King of England when the play was written, was a Scot. But reading books about the Scottish landscape will not help you understand the setting of Macbeth. Instead, read the play.
The Scotland of Macbeth seems rough and somewhat primitive. Each thane has his castle, and in between there are woods and fields. None of the action takes place in anything like a city.
The play has a murky feeling, which is reflected in the setting. The action starts in the open fields, but the air is clouded by the smoke of battle. Lightning and thunder fill the sky. Most of the scenes in Macbeth’s castle take place at night. Torches are needed to see anything at all.
Here are some of the major themes in Macbeth. Notice that each is expressed through some combination of plot, character, and language.
1. AN ANATOMY OF EVIL
A powerful sense of evil hangs over every scene in the play. Each character has to either fight or give in to it. The play makes several points about the nature of evil. The first point is that evil is contrary to human nature. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to contort their natures to murder Duncan. First, Lady Macbeth has to beg evil spirits to tear all human feeling from her, and then she has to make her husband ignore his own conscience. But the play also says that human nature cannot be avoided indefinitely. By the end of the play, both characters have been destroyed from within. Fear and guilt drive Lady Macbeth mad; Macbeth sees life as an empty, meaningless charade.
The second point is that it is evil to disrupt the natural order of the world. In nature, everything happens in its own time. A flower blooms when the laws of nature say it should, neither sooner nor later. When Macbeth takes the crown by murder, he upsets the natural order of his life- and the order of Scotland. Without the rightful, God-given king on the throne all society is disordered; under a usurper there can only be evil and chaos. Even nature becomes upset: it’s dark during the day; horses eat each other; owls kill falcons. Nearly every scene has references to unnatural deeds or occurrences. When Macbeth is killed and Malcolm takes the throne, the natural order is restored.
The third point is that evil is a disease. Like a disease, evil infects its victims and makes them sicken until they die. Once Macbeth kills Duncan, he is committed to a course of lying and killing. His sense of right and wrong is eaten away. Even before he is killed, Macbeth is dying of a diseased spirit. Scotland is also infected, and Macbeth is its disease. The longer he is king, the worse things get. When Macbeth is overthrown, the country is healed.
Many readers feel that Macbeth’s downfall is caused by his ambition. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth seems to be a brave, noble, and loyal thane. For his desire to become king, he is willing to turn his back on what he knows to be right. Lady Macbeth, because of her ambition for her husband, uses all her strength and intelligence for evil purposes. They are very unlike Banquo, who will not compromise his honor for anything.
3. APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY
Practically nothing in the play is what it appears to be. The witches’ predictions sound like good news; actually, they lead to death and destruction. Macbeth and his wife seem like gracious hosts; actually, they are plotting murder. The Macbeths appear to achieve their heart’s desires; in reality, they only gain torment and death. In reading the play, examine each scene to compare what appears to be happening with what is really happening.
4. HONOR AND LOYALTY
In a feudal society such as the one in Macbeth, peace and order are maintained largely through honor and loyalty. Men of honor obey certain rules. Macbeth throws all ideas of honor out the window. Once he has done that, the country is in turmoil. Nobody knows whom he can trust. Look at what Macduff has to go through to win Malcolm’s trust in Act IV. In Act V, it is made very clear that the few followers Macbeth has left have been forced to stay with him. They feel no sense of loyalty toward him. When it comes time to fight, they just give up.
5. FATE AND DESTINY
The play suggests that a person should trust his destiny to a higher power. After encountering the three witches, Macbeth tries to take fate into his own hands, and that action brings him nothing but grief. Malcolm, on the other hand, trusts that all things will work out “…by the grace of Grace [in other words, heaven]” (Act V, Scene viii, line 72). “Be what you’re meant to be,” the play seems to be saying.
The story of Macbeth is a combination of two stories found in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Shakespeare developed many of the plots and characters for his plays from this book of history and legend.
Holinshed tells one story about a man named Macbeth who killed a king named Duncan, but this story is different from the play in several important ways. The Duncan of the story was a bad king. He did not care about his people, and Banquo helped Macbeth overthrow him.
Shakespeare combined that story with another Holinshed story about someone named Donwald who killed a king named Duff. Duff was a good and pious king, and was Donwald’s guest when he was murdered. Also, Donwald killed Duff because his wife urged him to.
For the supernatural elements of the play, Shakespeare might have consulted a book called Demonology, written by none other than King James I himself. (Remember that Macbeth was first presented at James’ court.) In his book, James states that witches can predict the future.
POINT OF VIEW
Shakespeare takes a clear moral stance in telling the story of Macbeth. He portrays humans as creatures capable of good but in danger of giving in to the temptations of evil. Evil is introduced through supernatural beings- the witches. You could say Macbeth is as much a victim of their deception and his own ambition as he is a victimizer of others.
All evildoers are punished. The numerous mentions of heaven and hell remind us that good people who are killed will find eternal happiness, while those who do evil will suffer eternal damnation.
It is important not to confuse the point of view that Shakespeare gives to a character with the playwright’s own point of view. For example, Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech says that life is meaningless, but the play as a whole says just the opposite. Macbeth’s utter despair at that moment is a result of his evil deeds. The very fact that he and Lady Macbeth are punished for their wickedness is proof of a higher good which gives meaning to life.