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
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:
1. 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,
2. 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.
3. 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
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.
4. The spies Macbeth plants show how desperate and paranoid he is.
He sees enemies–real or imagined–everywhere.
5. 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.
MACBETH: LADY MACBETH
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
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
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.
MACBETH: THE WITCHES
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
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
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